Pacific petitions

New lawsuit looks to block ‘antisemitic’ ethnic studies curriculum in Calif. school district

ADL, Brandeis Center, AJC, Potomac Law Group file petition alleging Santa Ana school board hid content of the courses from public, in violation of state law

A coalition of national and international organizations filed a new lawsuit to block the implementation of an ethnic studies curriculum in the Santa Ana, Calif., school district, which it considers to be antisemitic and anti-Israel, on the grounds that the school board violated state transparency laws.

The lawsuit was filed jointly by the Anti-Defamation League, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, the American Jewish Committee and Potomac Law Group with the goal of preventing “antisemitic material from being taught in Santa Ana schools,” the organizations said in a statement. The effort was also supported by StandWithUs.

This is not the first lawsuit against a school district aiming to implement a controversial curriculum in California that, among other things, refers to Israel as a “settler colonial’ and “racist” state. However, unlike other cases that focus on the content, the lawsuit filed on Friday argues that the school board in question deliberately obscured the details of the curriculum from the public in order to prevent debate over the topics and that when it did allow discussion, the board permitted Jewish speakers to be “harassed, humiliated and heckled,” L. Rachel Lerman, one of the attorneys leading the case from the Brandeis Center, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The fight over an ethnic studies requirement for California high schoolers has been raging for years, particularly — but not only — over the way that a proposed state curriculum was seen as both promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and failing to include lesson plans about antisemitism. When the legislation was eventually signed, the optional — but recommended — state curriculum had been amended with input from Jewish leaders in California. 

However, some districts opted out of the state curriculum and instead developed their own, which included many of the key issues regarding antisemitism and anti-Zionism that troubled Jewish leaders. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office sent a letter to educators cautioning school administrators against using ethnic studies courses that promote bias and bigotry, in what was widely seen as a reference to these curricula.

Alongside efforts on the political and legislative levels, groups of parents and organizations have sought to bar these curricula from being used through lawsuits, including one last year that was filed against a group of Los Angeles teachers accused of discriminating against Jews.

While the lawsuit filed by the coalition last week also takes issue with the content of the curriculum, its case rests on procedural grounds: The board, they argue, did not follow state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires the public to be notified of what the board will be discussing, to have the right to attend the meetings and to be free from discrimination at those meetings.  

“The public was deprived of its legal opportunity to address the content of these courses before the Board approved them, because the Board failed to give the community the legally required opportunity to learn about the content and comment on it at public meetings of the Board,” they wrote in the petition, which was filed with the Superior Court of the State of California in Orange County.

Lerman stressed that the organizations support the teaching of ethnic studies, just not the specific curriculum adopted by the Santa Ana schools.

“It’s important for students to learn about the other kind of ethnicities that make up the State of California and the towns they live in. And that was the original idea of ethnic studies, which is why so many Jewish groups supported it,” she told eJP. “But we’ve also known that there’s a branch to ethnic studies that is determined to include antisemitic and anti-Israel content into ethnic studies. And this has been an area of concern for some time.”

In the petition, the organizations note that the school board was aware that the Jewish community would oppose aspects of the curriculum. In a subcommittee meeting on Oct. 4, 2022, the board members cited a need to “address the Jewish question” and recommend consulting with XITO and “the Ochoas,” with the former referring to an ethnic studies group that refers to Israel as “settler colonialism” and the latter referring to Gilda and Enrique Ochoa, two professors who opposed the edits made to the state’s model curriculum, specifically regarding antisemitism.

‘We’ve known for some time that there was a desire to go under the radar with the [subcommittee hearings]. People designing these courses know that the Jewish community is not going to be happy about being the minority group thrown under the bus,” Lerman said.

James Pasch, ADL’s senior director of national litigation, said in a statement that the board’s tactic of using closed-door sessions to discuss the curriculum “prevented input from marginalized communities – in direct contrast to the goal of the ethnic studies program, which is to support marginalized communities.”

Once word got out earlier this year about the curriculum, members of the public attended a May 23 board meeting to discuss the matter. The petitioners describe the meeting as being rife with “antisemitic tropes” and “violent language,” including attendees shouting, “you’re racists” and “you’re killers,” at two Jewish high school students who spoke during the discussion. Some Jewish attendees also reported being followed to their cars after the meeting.

The petitioners argue that the board failed to ”protect members of the community from a hostile environment… to the extent that they were unable to fully exercise their participation rights.”

If the petitioners win their case, it would require the school board to reopen discussions about the ethnic studies curriculum and go through the approval process again.

Lerman said this would  “send a message across the state, across the nation that doing this under the table is against the law, and it can’t be tolerated.” She said these kinds of lawsuits can also have a “deterrent effect” because school boards “don’t like to be sued.”

Marc Stern, AJC’s chief legal officer, said that opening the curriculum to public debate was also a legal requirement. “Public comment and debate are essential to devising a broadly acceptable ethnic studies curriculum. Community input is not just important, it is also the law, one the Santa Ana district has blatantly violated,” Stern said in a statement. “The district must open up its curriculum for public examination so families can ensure their children are receiving instruction in ethnic studies that emphasizes diversity rather than discrimination.”

As the school year in Santa Ana is already underway, it’s not clear if a judge will issue a verdict or even an interim injunction before the curriculum is taught to students in the district, she said, and judges have a significant amount of influence over the speed at which these cases are heard.

“But the timeline on a Brown Act [case] is usually expedited,” she said. “That’s kind of what we’re counting on. But we have to see how the board responds.”

Lerman said the organizations involved were also prepared to continue fighting against this ethnic studies curriculum.

“If we can’t persuade the school board to change… we may have to continue more litigation,” she said.