Thursday, December 8, 2022

School Board Amends “Tortilla-Gate” Apology Letter to Orange Glen; Removes “Racism, Classism, and Colorism”

No Place for Hate Stays on as optional club; Let Them Breathe pushes for mask choice

The Coronado School Board met on Thursday August 19 at 4pm at District Offices, located at 201 Sixth Street, for a regularly-scheduled board meeting. The meeting, which lasted until after midnight, was packed with passionate speakers, many of whom stood up to speak two or three times on controversial topics such as Tortilla-Gate (how many refer to the aftermath of the basketball tortilla-throwing on June 19), mask mandates and Critical Race Theory.

In a vote dubbed a “big win” by some basketball parents and members of the community, the board voted to amend the June 20 statement of apology following the throwing of tortillas by two CUSD students at the conclusion of the CIF championship game against Orange Glen, a mostly Hispanic team from Escondido. A video of the tortilla-tossing went viral on social media moments after the game, spawning a worldwide media frenzy and fueling accusations of racism and racial insensitivity, and upsetting many members of the Latin community. It even fueled a conspiracy theory, despite the fact that Luke Serna—the CHS alumni who brought the tortillas to the game—said he handed them out to be thrown in celebration, not as any sort of racist or political act. Ultimately, the CHS basketball team was stripped of its championship title by CIF for “discriminatory and racially insensitive behaviors.”

Tortillas were thrown at the conclusion of the June 19th game against Orange Glen, fueling a media frenzy. Image taken from video.

The original apology letter to Orange Glen, drafted by board members the morning after the game, was amended most notably to eliminate the reference to “racism, classism, and colorism,” and to support the earlier statement made by Superintendent Karl Mueller that was sent to the CUSD community.

The reissued statement from the CUSD board reads as follows:

Dear Orange Glen Community, 
On behalf of the CUSD Governing Board, we extend a full and formal apology to the Orange Glen High School athletes, known as the Patriots, as well as their peers, parents, teachers, and staff. 
The CUSD Governing Board supports the statement of Superintendent Mueller.  

The referenced statement issued by Superintendent Mueller on June 20, 2021 to the CUSD community reads as follows:

I was appalled to learn that immediately following the basketball game last night, members of our community were involved in an altercation and unsportsmanlike conduct which included throwing tortillas at our visitors from Orange Glen. This behavior is reprehensible. We cannot allow anyone in our community to be made to feel unwelcome and we send our deep and sincere apology to the Orange Glen community. The individuals who participated in these actions do not reflect our school district values. I want to make it clear that there is no place for such conduct in Coronado Unified School District. Swift action will be taken to address all those involved, and they will be held accountable. It is our hope to create opportunities to dialogue with the Orange Glen community in an attempt to repair. We are hopeful that this experience can be used as a teachable moment to educate our students on the impact of words and actions, and to reflect and learn from it to move forward to increased awareness and respect to match our high expectations.
CUSD remains steadfast in our determination to create an environment in which all students and staff feel safe, valued, and respected. We have a commitment to stand against any act of bias. We all still have important work to do in order to achieve our mission.

“We are pleased the board corrected their statement,” said CHS basketball dad Robert Couts in a Facebook message. “But we wish the initial apology from June had been appropriate and had not condemned our boys and community as racist, classist, colorist and perpetrators because there was never any evidence to support such claims.”

Just after midnight with much deliberation and discussion, the board voted 3-2 to amend the letter, with Board President Lee Pontes, Helen Anderson-Cruz and Stacy Keszei voting yes, and Esther Valdes-Clayton and Whitney Antrim voting no. Many guests in the board room audience reacted with thunderous applause and standing ovations.

“I know we’ve wounded our community, no matter how inadvertently it was done. Hurting children was not the reason I ran for school board,” said Anderson-Cruz just before the vote. “Words can be hurtful, but words can also heal.”

Not only did the board’s original letter stir controversy among Coronado community members, but it was also a violation of the Brown Act, according to attorney Michael Giorgino who spoke at the meeting. He said the board met in secret and approved a public letter without proper notification or public input, and demanded the board “cure or correct” this action.

Brad Couture, who was the official scorer/timer for the June 19 CIF championship game said on a phone interview that he was happy about the change.

“Those three words [racism, classism, and colorism] and the way that they were used, in the political climate that we are in now, really set me off,” said Couture. “But if they have taken those three words out of their statement, I am very happy.”

While many of the public comments focused on the criticism for how the district handled Tortilla-Gate, others focused on Critical Race Theory and the No Place for Hate club. Several community members said that NPFH—the anti-bullying club organized by the Anti-Defamation League—was actually CRT in disguise and was taking up valuable class time. Several speakers quoted directly from the ADL handbook, although it was not clear what, if any of the activities in question, had actually taken place during school hours. The topics of most concern seemed to be the conversation of gender pronouns at the secondary school level, as well as the ADL’s definition of racism. One sixth grader said she didn’t learn anything in the last year except gender pronouns.

The No Place for Hate club was started in response to student voice and reported bullying and racism in CUSD, according to Karl Mueller.

Chloe Berk, incoming CHS senior and student leader in the high school for No Place for Hate, spoke on behalf of the NPFH club, sharing that she has witnessed first-hand the positive impact NPFH has had on Coronado students. She said the club was not brought in and forced onto students by an outside political, partisan movement, but the activities were in fact designed by Coronado students, for Coronado students.

“Our activities never had any reference to politics, oppressors, divisiveness, or guilt,” said Berk. “It seems like the vocal critics of NPFH have spent their time scrutinizing manuals rather than really learning about what was happening with NPFH in Coronado schools.”

She said the activities were optional, with no pressure, punishment or consequences.

“However, a majority of students chose to participate because these activities contained a positive and constructive dialogue that appears to be lacking from many of the adults in our community,” said Berk.

Berk’s input can be heard at the 1:16 mark in the video below, and all public comments can be listened to in the two-plus hour video:

Berk’s speech was met by applause from a few, and jeers and degrading comments from at least two adults in the audience, one of whom was asked to apologize.

Later in the evening, Shane Schmeichel, director of special programs at CUSD, gave a presentation on the NPFH club, sharing that it is not an adopted curriculum but a club created in response to student voice. (NPFH activities at CUSD are included in this report.) In the slideshow, CUSD did acknowledge that NPFH activities may have exceeded traditional club boundaries during the last school year, and that moving forward, site administration would enforce strict adherence to rules about clubs–expressly that club activities should not take place during school instruction hours.

“I am stating here to tell you there will be no more bleeding of the lines of any clubs,” said Mueller.

Mueller shared that CUSD will design and build its own anti-bullying and anti-bias program, one that will be created by Coronado students, residents and staff.

Some parents and board members alleged that NPFH should not be allowed on campus at all, but Mueller said this would violate a code that says schools cannot deny any student-initiated school group access during non-instructional time on the basis of religious, political or philosophical reasons.

Another controversial topic that brought many public comments: the back-to-school reopening guidelines as they relate to mask-wearing. Just before the board meeting, Let Them Breathe—a mask-choice organization started by Carlsbad mom Sharon McKeeman—held a rally outside district offices. The event, advertised in social media as an opportunity to “stop complying” and “restore smiles,” was attended by special guest Mayor Richard Bailey, who did not speak. Local speakers included board member Stacy Keszei, Kelly O’Connor, Gerri Machin and her daughter, as well as Katy Yaeger, who shared she is a pastor from Awaken Church in Eastlake who recently moved to Coronado.

Let Them Breathe is a mask choice organization started by a mother in Carlsbad.

Yaeger said that current mask mandates and COVID concerns are making children worry that they will get other people sick, and that this is akin to verbal abuse. She also said that many healthy children are suffering from migraines from all-day mask wearing.

“I see something special happening in San Diego, where we will see classrooms free of plexiglass where children can learn in the styles they created to learn by,” she said. “What would it look like if we unified our voices on an issue we can all rally around, that will bring health into our communities?”

Other speakers at the rally included Carlsbad mental health therapist Melanie Burkholder who is running for California State Assembly in North County, as well as Marco Contreras, candidate for California State Assembly for District 79.

Later at the board meeting, several speakers wearing “Let them Breathe” t-shirts advocated for mask-choice, and asserted that as parents, they know more about the unique health needs of their children than elected officials.

“I’ve spent the last few years studying the body, and how it works,” said a mother of a soon-to-be third-grader at Village Elementary, whose son suffers from an auto-immune disease. “We are forgetting that we have a body, a body that was given by God, and it has an immune system that was made to fight. But the only way it can fight is through exposure to germs and bacteria.”

Keszei at the Let them Breathe rally.

Keszei asked that a future agenda item be created to consider signing a declaration from the Let Them Breathe organization. (The mask-choice lawsuit the district was invited to join two weeks ago was struck down, according to Valdes-Clayton.)

Other board business included discussion of the options for independent learning, as presented by Dr. Megan Battle, as well as the adoption of new AP textbooks for Government, US History, Physics, Biology, Psychology and Physical Science. Parents, students and members of the community are invited to view the books at district offices where they will be placed on display.

Former CUSD board member, Maria Simon, is expected to be named the district’s Public Information Officer, and Shane Schmeichel was affirmed for the position as director of special programs at CHS.

Finally, Trustee Stacy Keszei will potentially be censured for allegedly sharing confidential board correspondence. A 4-1 vote called for a public hearing whereby Keszei may seek legal representation at her own expense, and evidence would be examined to determine if a breach of confidentiality took place. Her attorney, Michael Giorgino, asked for the soonest possible date for the hearing, which is the same date as the next scheduled board meeting, Thursday, September 9th.


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Christine Van Tuyl
Christine Van Tuyl
Christine was born and raised in Texas, but moved to Coronado with her family as a teen in 1993. Although initially horrified by surfers, flannels and skateboards, she ultimately grew to love all things So-Cal. A graduate of UCSD, Christine got her first writing job on the KUSI ten o’clock news while simultaneously juggling a reporter position at the San Diego Community News Group. She worked as a public relations professional, a book editor, real estate professional, and a freelance writer before eventually succumbing to motherhood in 2008.A decade later, Christine resurfaced to start the Island Girl Blog, a Coronado lifestyle blog. In addition, she writes a monthly page for Crown City Magazine. Christine loves hanging out with her husband, Ian, and their two spirited daughters, Holland and Marley, who attend Village Elementary and Coronado Middle School. When she’s not working, you’ll find her practicing yoga, spilling coffee at school drop off, meeting friends for sushi, or sailing the Bay with her family and English Bulldog, Moshi. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]