Opinion: Left of Center

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Reflections on Education and Political Correctness

By Jean Hastings Ardell

Some of you may have seen the page one article in last Sunday’s New York Times about Kristine Hostetter, a fourth-grade teacher in the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD). Hostetter and her husband Alan live in San Clemente, and after their images appeared on social media as participants in the Jan. 6 march to the Capitol, some in their community rose up in alarm. A student-organized group submitted a petition to the CUSD urging it to find out whether Hostetter “had taken part in the attack on the Capitol and whether her politics had crept into her teaching.” The District then suspended Hostetter. That prompted a counter-petition defending Hostetter’s right to her politics, with Judy Bullockus, CUSD’s president of the board of trustees, pointing out that, “No one had called for an investigation when a teacher displayed a Black Lives Matter poster in the background while teaching remotely. ‘Now they want us to investigate a teacher’s politics?’” Hostetter was soon reinstated, but her story has sparked quite a buzz.

As it should, because what and how we teach the students we entrust to our public education system is of vital concern. Indeed, one of Hostetter’s former students, Esther Mafouta, told the Times that in Hostetter’s class she “cannot recall being mistreated or singled out for being Black.” Prominent on the CUSD website is the statement: “In CUSD There is no place for hate” followed by the District’s stated commitment to “equality, diversity, inclusion, tolerance and human and civil rights for all.” That’s followed by a copy of Resolution No. 1920-63, “Resolution on the Fight Against Intolerance, Racism, and Discrimination,” which the Board passed unanimously and adopted on June 24, 2020.

Around that same time, as the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis prompted a nation-wide reevaluation of our attitudes toward race, however, Mafouta and others felt moved to urge CUSD to do more to combat the racism “that pervades the schools in and around San Clemente” and collected 800 signatures on a petition demanding action. If this sounds familiar, remember that the students in the Laguna Beach Unified School District did much the same thing last summer. Our superintendent, staff, and board listened and initiated change. Just know that this is a work in progress and will call for continued monitoring.

As one who has despaired that we’d ever again see an activist generation like that of the mid-1960s, I say “Bravo!” to this generation for stepping up. And as one who has long wanted the teaching of history to be made more accurate and the teaching of literature to be made more inclusive, I’m glad that this change has come.

I don’t accept that such changes “cancel culture”—a handy phrase used by some on the Right as a pejorative. I find the phrase inaccurate; it also ties into the idea that “history is written by the victors.” Anyone who’s been involved in any sort of historic movement can tell you there are nuances and varying points of view that demand to be told in the name of accuracy. Let’s agree that accuracy in the teaching of history is a good thing.

And yet I’m troubled by the CUSD’s suspension of Hostetter. Its investigation found she had done nothing more than assemble peacefully near the Capitol. Shouldn’t the district have held up its decision until its investigation was completed? I fully support the ideal that teachers are entitled to their politics. I’d like to see a town hall meeting (OK, even on Zoom) in which Hostetter and the teacher who displayed a Black Lives Matter poster on her screen engage in a discussion of their politics moderated by student leaders in CUSD.

That said, I can tell you that Hostetter’s behavior as reported in the Times—an angry challenge to a group at the beach that was wearing masks and an appearance at a mask-burning at the San Clemente Pier—makes me want to avoid being in her presence. So what about the students in her classroom when CUSD resumes in-person classes on April 26? Will she follow the district’s healthcare protocols and mask up if it’s required? While I support Hostetter’s right to give voice to her politics, I do not support her disregard of the healthcare protocols our doctors tell us can protect others.

We can view this latest news story as just one more wearying example of our country’s dividedness—or we can see it as an opportunity to model some critical thinking skills with our kids and the community. Let’s try the latter.

Jean is a member of the Third Street Writers.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Ms. Ardell,

    While I cannot speak to a specific personnel investigation conducted by the Capistrano Unified School District, in general, I can assure you that we do not initiate any investigation or place any employee on leave because of a petition.

    Additionally, we don’t reach any decision about a personnel matter until we have determined that a full and complete investigation is completed.

    Second, we opened our schools and campuses last September. We were the largest public school District in the state to welcome students back that early — and many remain closed. As confirmed by the Orange County Health Care Agency, we have not experienced a single case of COVID transmission in any of our classrooms and we never had to close a school — even during the worst of the pandemic in December and January. Our teachers and staff, regardless of their personal beliefs, have followed all health and safety guidelines and have kept our students safe.

    Next week we will offer CUSD students and families full days of instruction in middle and high school, discontinuing hybrid instruction. While we are moving closer to normal instruction, our classrooms have been open since September.

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