Southern California School District Mulls Sensitivity Policy

Richard D. Ackerman, The Pro-Family Law Center, Aug. 11

(Murrieta, CA) The Murrieta Valley Unified School District (MVUSD), in Riverside County, California, is considering the adoption of a district-wide policy that could expel students for merely “rejecting” each other, or for sharing truthful or “unpleasant stories” about each other. Not all MVUSD Board Members support the proposed policy.

MVUSD proposed Board Policy 5145.3 is a purported reaction to race-related incidents that have taken place within the district in the last year. Under the proposed policy, to be considered by the MVUSD Board on August 12, 2004, students may not form or openly participate in groups that tend to exclude, or create the impression of the exclusion of, other students. If passed, this policy could set a national precedent. Sources say that national race-based organizations came to MVUSD with the proposed language of the policy.

Based on a plain reading of the proposed regulation, a student could be expelled for simply claiming to be a member of La Raza (“The Race”), a Latino organization, or for playing rap music near white students. Richard D. Ackerman, Vice-President of Legal Affairs for the California-based Pro-Family Law Center says, “This is a brutal affront to the First Amendment. Students have a right to associate with each other and should not be punished for dividing themselves into groups that allow individuals to better relate to each other. For example, Latino students have unique socio-economic circumstances that justify allowing them to privately associate with each other, just as much as Christian students may have things in common that warrant the creation of a private group whose members share common values and attitudes. School districts have no right to interfere with the peaceful activities of any club or social group, even if the mere existence of the group makes certain persons uncomfortable.” Ackerman, a MVUSD parent, has sent a strongly-worded legal opinion to the District. Litigation is threatened if the proposed policy is approved.

MVUSD is apparently basing the proposed policy on the promotion of diversity, but yet requires that all of its schools ensure that no group acts to the exclusion or rejection of others. The policy requires complete uniformity of thought and action by all students. Under the policy no group would be allowed to engage in any behavior that leaves others ‘feel left out.’ A legal analysis of this policy is attached to this e-mail notification.

Harassment Policy To Be Reworked

Kelly Brusch, North County Times, Aug. 12

MURRIETA—The Murrieta school board narrowly voted Thursday to send a controversial anti-harassment policy back to district administrators because of concerns that the policy violates the First Amendment and because of last-minute changes made to the document.

The Murrieta Valley School District’s Board of Trustees voted 3-2 to have the district’s attorneys take another look at the changes and determine whether the policy would withstand legal challenges that it could violate the free speech and free association clauses of the First Amendment.

Trustees Austin Linsley and Margi Wray voted to approve the proposal. The policy will come back before the board after the staff reviews it and revisions the staff and board members suggested prior to the meeting.

The policy is an outgrowth of several incidents involving fights between students last year, at least one of which Murrieta school officials say was racially motivated.

The proposal defines and prohibits racial, sexual and religious harassment and bullying of any sort. It also describes how students and staff may be disciplined for such conduct, or allowing it, and how they may file a complaint if they believe they have been victimized, the proposal states.

Trustee Paul Diffley said a policy encouraging district employees to model respect at all times and stressing common sense and equal treatment for everyone, not just minority groups, would be more helpful than the proposed one.

“I think we’re approaching this whole thing from the wrong direction,” he said. “There can’t be a rule for everything. We can’t have people standing in groups to overhear conversations to see if those conversations are correct.”

Trustee Austin Linsley balked at a statement from an audience member that the policy had been hastily created and was full of flaws.

“This policy was not generated carelessly. It’s a product of a long, involved process,” he said. “I have no hesitation that we are instituting a careless effort.”

The board voted after almost two hours of often passionate discussion from the public. Some people said the policy would protect students from bullying, and would give teachers and staff a concrete outline to follow in cases of harassment and discrimination.

Jim Woodward, a local gay-rights activist, said some studies have shown students hear up to 25 slurs against gay people per day during school. He said the policy would be an important step in establishing consequences for such behavior.

“The careful teaching of hate in our public schools must stop,” he said.

Other audience members said the policy was too broad and vague, and would open the district up to legal challenges.

Attorney Betty McMullen called the proposal “legally indefensible” and said it would never pass constitutional muster.

“The proposal will do nothing to guarantee an end to discrimination. It will do a lot to end the ability of students and faculty to have free discourse,” she said. “It’s an attempt to control the thinking of students.”

Last year, several fights broke out between black and white students at Murrieta Valley High School, and in another incident, a white student used racial slurs. Two white students were convicted of hate crimes as a result of one of the attacks.

Although Murrieta school officials have said the incidents were isolated, they say there are issues involving race and harassment the district needs to do a better job of addressing.

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