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In the fight to protect school children from radical curricula, the canary in the coal mine was a California coastal community once home to former President Ronald Reagan’s personal ranch and now home to ultra-wealthy white liberals as well as a large underclass of poor Hispanics.
Critical Race Theory (CRT), which holds that American institutions and culture are systemically racist and categorizes people as either victims or oppressors based on skin color, has generated a backlash in recent years from parents. But a parents group called Fair Education Santa Barbara began fighting four years ago, filing what is believed to be the nation’s first lawsuit against CRT and related pedagogy, which critics say poison the minds of young children.
Although a federal judge ruled in 2019 that the group lacked standing to assert its claims of intentional discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and sex, the suit foreshadowed a national fight for curriculum transparency.
“Fair Education’s first-in-the-nation lawsuit lit the spark for the prairie fire that has spread across America, to provide parents with the information and knowledge needed to fight the racially divisive, anti-American, sexually over-the-top indoctrination occurring daily in our schools beginning in kindergarten,” Sheridan Rosenberg and James Fenkner, local parents and co-founders of the group, wrote in a January submission to the Santa Barbara News-Press.
The parents charged that the district required all students to take extreme “ethnic studies” courses as a condition of graduating, put a radical activist group in charge of other programming, and refused to allow parents to see the curriculum. One specific claim asserted that the district segregated students for “training” sessions, telling white children that all whites are racist. One student allegedly contemplated suicide because he felt deep shame over not speaking Spanish.
Opponents say CRT is part of a larger, radical curriculum being imposed on public school children under a series of names that seem to change when opposition builds. School officials and Democrats claim, despite clear evidence, that CRT isn’t in schools while also vehemently opposing growing efforts to ban it. While the battle is new for some, Santa Barbara parents have seen it play out longer than most. They say activist-teachers have been working to turn children into political foot soldiers, and they warn that the radicalism steadily ratchets up over time.
“Ethnic studies” is a particularly militant cousin of CRT. In 2011, an ethnic studies program in Phoenix was canceled after the state charged that it violated a law prohibiting schools from teaching resentment towards a race or class of people or promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government. A top administrator found that students were being “exploited” by community activists and college academics, who convinced Hispanic students they were part of the long-extinct Aztec culture.
Mark Stegeman, a college professor and then-Phoenix Board of Education President, recounted visiting the class, which included the teacher telling students they were “still in the struggle” and having them chant: “We must be willing to act in a revolutionary fashion.” What he witnessed mirrored a book he had read about the psychological dynamics of cults and prompted a chilling realization, he recalled thinking.
“This is a cult,” Stegeman scribbled in his notepad.
A few years later, a handful of activists used identical methods in Santa Barbara, operating under the banner “Ethnic Studies Now!” They sought to make Ethnic Studies a requirement for graduation, and found support on the liberal city’s all-female school board, whose members refer to each other as “sister board members.” The activist group quickly began to exert its influence on the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD), bringing in a range of radical curricula and Left-wing consultants to inculcate children in fringe theories.
Key figures in the Ethnic Studies Now! Santa Barbara chapter are disgraced history teacher Matef Harmachis and his wife Diane Fujino. For years, Harmachis and Fujino regularly visited a prison to see an inmate convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government.
Harmachis remained a mainstay at school board meetings even after he was convicted of battery against a student in 2017. A lawyer for the student says it was done in a sexual manner. Before he was fired in 2020, Harmachis preached his militant beliefs to a captive audience of students in a classroom adorned with pictures of communist killers like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He took his adopted surname from the name of a god worshiped by an ancient Egyptian cult.
Before enraptured youth at one event, Harmachis declared himself “an African” and said “I’m going to tell you what leadership means to African people… you must love, love, love your people, unfortunately sometimes to death so your people can live… We take orders and we follow them to the letter on behalf of our people.” According to public records, Harmachis’ real name is Leigh Barker, he is originally from the mundane California city of Riverside, and he now lives in a home valued at some $1.6 million, blocks from the beach.
SBUSD embraced the activist groups and absorbed their agendas, furthering them with taxpayer dollars. It hired Artnelson Concordia as Ethnic Studies Coordinator, budgeting $129,000 for the position. Concordia says he raises children to be “disrupters of the white supremacist, patriarchal, hetero-normative, imperialist hegemony.” Santa Barbara children chanted Mayan prayers, despite the fact that Mayans were known for their ritualistic killing of children as sacrifices to the gods. Concordia later helped write a state-wide ethnic studies curriculum approved by the state Board of Education that called for students to engage in an “ethnic studies chant” to “bring the class together.”
For years, SBUSD turned over portions of its curriculum to activist nonprofits. Many were funded by the Fund for Santa Barbara, of which Harmachis’s wife, Diane Fujino – a professor of Asian American Studies and onetime Director of the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USCB) – serves on the board of directors.
One nonprofit, which the Fund paid to provide “social emotional learning (SEL) certification workshops,” is called AHA! Santa Barbara (Attitudes, Harmony, and Achievement). It gathered students into circles alongside adults, including one who served time in prison, to share intimate details of their lives. The program was created by Jennifer Freed, a “certified astrologer & psychotherapist” who tells people she can understand them based on “cosmic DNA.”
Some AHA circles focus on the sex lives of the high schoolers. “I had great sexual experiences with guys in junior high and high school,” Freed said in an interview with the popular sex tips podcast Sex With Emily. “We do an after-school group for young women called Sexual Wisdom, and one for guys… they bond to each other as educators and learners, because as they get a consciousness about their power of being sexual beings.” (On the material that parents see, AHA advertises a “Girls Relationship Wisdom Group.”)
Freed explained to the podcaster: “This is what we do with the teens, once we’ve heard from them all their basic misconceptions about sex, like guys only want girls who have completely shaved pubes and then find us disgusting unless we’re bare. Then we go ok, how’s that working for you?”
SEL is marketed to parents as something that “can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.”
Other groups and individuals played key roles in the deep radicalization of Santa Barbara’s school system. The Association of Raza Educators (ARE), a group that says its mission is “to promote critical pedagogy as the principle [sic] means of addressing the question of how to teach our children,” had the ears of district officials. (Critical pedagogy is the application of critical theory, including critical race theory.)
Another group, Just Communities, received more than $1 million in grants from the school district to push a radical agenda under the guise of promoting “equity.” Run until recently by Jarrod Schwartz, Just Communities held a district-funded summer camp where students were supposed to “learn from activities that focus on ethnic and racial identity, stereotyping, communication, family issues, racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism.”
Just Communities is an offshoot of a now-defunct group called NCCJ whose offspring have a disturbing record of mistreating children in the name of social justice. At another NCCJ-related camp in Northern California, students were “ordered to separate by race, ethnicity and sexual orientation… while their peers are instructed to call out every slur and stereotype they know about them,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2018.
If students were too kind, the adults twisted the dagger by using the most painful of stereotypes, according to the report. After students called out “good at math” for Asians, staff yelled out “small penises.” Adults called blacks “porch monkeys” and ordered Hispanics to clean up, the Chronicle reported.
Richard Valenzuela, a teacher and director of “Camp Diversity” in Northern California, acknowledged mistreating students.
“I hit the ‘blind’ people in the back of the head so they can feel how it is to be harassed, how it feels to be violated,” he told the newspaper. He also taunted Jewish students about the Holocaust, asking, “You Jews waiting for the train or what?” Other teachers trained black students to mistrust police, dressing as officers and planting mock drug paraphernalia on them. At night as the students tried to sleep, counselors haunted them by playing chainsaw noises.
Schwartz told the paper that he rejects some of Valenzuela’s methods. But teachers and parents said even sessions happening in school buildings had similarities to Valenzuela’s nightmarish student camps.
Theresa Petino, an immigrant and mother in Santa Barbara who sent her middle schooler to a three-day Just Communities program at the junior high because she thought it would advocate unity that aligned with her beliefs as a Democrat, complained to the school board that her child returned “very upset.”
“When I contacted one of the teachers from Just Communities and told her the state of my child and asked her what was taught in the class, she responded to me by saying that my child said he was a disgrace to his family,” she told the board at a September 2019 meeting. “She never told me what was taught in class that day.”
Petino later learned that what upset her child were lessons that instilled into middle schoolers the idea that Latinos and blacks were unlikely to achieve success in America.
“These kids are at a very vulnerable age and some of them can get very discouraged and affected psychologically. Making them not even try to succeed,” Petino told the school board.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the fact that camp counselors cultivated relationships with students that continued after the camp. Petino was shocked when Just Communities later texted her child directly to invite him “to go for a hike and bring a friend.”
“I never gave Just Communities my child’s number,” Petino said. “Just Communities had my number and they never contacted me informing me of such an invitation. My child is a minor, is that even legal?”
Shortly after Petino addressed the board, a youth who described himself as a “queer brown low-income person” said he initially did not want to go to a Just Communities “Institute,” but “within I would say an hour I just formed my family. I understand that while we do have a blood family, we also have a family that we create ourselves. And I believe I have found mine.”
Rosenberg, the Santa Barbara parent who went on to co-found Fair Education Santa Barbara, said she got a familiar feeling from the activism techniques being used – including the confiding of deeply personal information, having children lie down and pretend to be dead as a form of protest, the urgency evident in “Ethnic Studies Now!” and its demand to make its curriculum required.
Having grown up in the 1970s in the rural California community of Ukiah, Rosenberg recalled a local teacher who ran a home for troubled teens while building a base of followers for what he called “Apostolic Socialism.” His name was Jim Jones, and he would later convince more than 900 of his followers to die in a mass suicide in Guyana by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch.
“These are ideological predators,” Rosenberg told The Daily Wire. “People should be just as vigilant protecting their children from ideological predators as they are sexual predators.”
Despite the local backlash, the Santa Barbara school district refused to cut ties with Ethnic Studies Now! and Just Communities (though it now says it has declined to renew its contract this year). It was equally adamant that parents not be able to see Just Communities’ materials. When Rosenberg’s group sued the school district and the nonprofit in federal court, alleging that the district gave Just Communities no-bid contracts and that Just Communities practiced racial discrimination and segregation, the non-profit hired the powerful, Democrat-connected law firm Perkins Coie. The Washington-based law firm has come under the scrutiny of Special Counsel John Durham for its work on behalf of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee prior to the 2016 election.
Documents revealed under the discovery process of a lawsuit are typically public, but Perkins Coie fought to keep Just Communities’ paper trail sealed. In an email to opposing counsel, its lawyers said materials should be “designated Attorney’s Eyes Only” unless ordered by a court or agreed to otherwise. The district had so many lawyers that the judge had to seat some in the jury box. It won the case, and the victory was later affirmed on appeal.
Luke Rosiak is the author of the book Race To the Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Public Education.
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