Update on February 15th: This article states that the Deborah Project issued a PRA request asking for all electronic communication and materials relating to Ethnic Studies. In fact, the Zachor Institute was responsible for the Public Records Act request for Ethnic Studies materials and communications that led to the email by Hansen. The Deborah Project sent a request for Ethnic Studies materials in 2023 and sent a new request for all instructional materials relating to “Zionism, Zionists, Israel, Israelis, Palestine, and/or Palestinians” on January 11th, 2024.
Late afternoon on Wednesday, January 31st, Associate Superintendent Bonnie Hansen began an email to all staff, “What follows is a notice I never thought I’d have to send.”
Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) teachers received an email from Hansen instructing them to submit all instructional materials containing the words “Zionism, Zionists, Israel, Israelis, Palestine, and/or Palestinians” taught since September 1st to District lawyers.
In a separate email, Ethnic Studies teachers were asked to submit all Ethnic Studies materials as well as any text messages about Ethnic Studies.
The Deborah Project requested these items through a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request. The CPRA is a law that allows citizens to view records and materials made by government employees—including public school teachers and District employees. The Deborah Project is a public interest law firm that claims to “assert and defend the civil rights of Jews who face discrimination in educational settings.”
The District is using San Francisco-based educational law firm Dannis Woliver Kelley to comply with this request. In her email, Hansen assured teachers that the request “is not a request coming from the District and materials submitted will go directly to our attorneys for review and submission.”
The District’s additional email asked Ethnic Studies teachers to submit all of their lesson materials; this includes every lesson plan, assigned readings, and all presented materials. They are also collecting every memo, text message, and electronic communication about Ethnic Studies since the start of 2022. The District itself will also retrieve all email communications from Ethnic Studies teachers about Ethnic Studies to eventually send to The Deborah Project.
In the first email to all staff, Hansen said, “While this is certainly not the District’s first request for information under the Public Records Act, it is the first time we are receiving requests that require submissions from teachers.”
History teacher Sam Harris said, “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in my 16 years as a teacher, but this records request is a first.”
The Deborah Project’s Legal Director Lori Lowenthal Marcus, who sent the request on January 11th, said, “The Deborah Project is trying to prevent educational malpractice by the presentation of wholly inaccurate and divisive material.”
These requests come after multiple alleged issues with antisemitism in SUHSD* including months of coordinated advocacy against a slideshow presented by two Ethnic Studies teachers.
One of the teachers who presented the slideshow, Chloe Gentile-Montgomery, who is still on leave due to reported threats and harassment over the presentation, said, “These requests are a way to threaten Ethnic Studies teachers who push their students to think critically and lead with love.”
She added, “I was disappointed when I initially saw the records request, although I was sadly not surprised. Ethnic Studies has been under attack since it came to public universities in the 1960s and even more so now that it is a requirement in California high schools.”
Hansen told the M-A Chronicle, “I am saddened that we have reached the point in education where blanket requests can be made of hundreds of teachers to share information from their personal phones and spend the time they don’t have to review lessons and materials going back months and years.”
Montgomery said, “This CPRA is a way to distract teachers from doing the work they actually need to be doing, which is primarily in the classroom.” She added, “I plan to write a letter about how this violates the academic integrity of our teachers,” adding that she will “follow the lead of the Union.”
Many other teachers also felt upset and frustrated by these requests. M-A Ethnic Studies teacher Lan Nguyen said, “There has been a long history of outside agitators weaponizing the public records request process to tear down Ethnic Studies as a course. It breaks my heart that the sacredness of our classrooms is being violated.”
Harris said, “I feel somewhat conflicted over this idea that teachers are being asked to ‘turn over’ their lesson materials, and it feels like a violation of our public trust to be the arbiters of educational knowledge. But I also believe that as public school teachers, we should be transparent with parents and community members who have every right to know what we’re teaching students in our classrooms.”
In reference to teachers who feel their classrooms should be private, Lowenthal Marcus said, “That’s not a correct response. When you’re a public school teacher, you work for the government, which means you work for the people. It’s really quite astounding that some teachers feel that way; they probably shouldn’t be working as a public school teacher.”
English Department Chair Liane Strub, who has taught at M-A for 29 years, said, “When you’re being your authentic self in the classroom as a teacher, maybe even revealing your own feelings or your own thoughts about things, it’s very personal. And then, to feel like ‘Oh my god, am I going to get a call or email, get called into the front office because I said something today’ is really uncomfortable.”
She continued, “It’s a factor for me in whether or not to retire this year. It’s that disturbing. There is this sense of insecurity, which I guess I’ve lived with all my career, but now I feel more insecure than I ever had before. And it’s not just because of the CPRA request, but it’s the entire atmosphere of cancel culture, of critique, and of the glee people have if they ‘catch’ you.”
Lowenthal Marcus said, “If teachers feel like they need to hide the materials they are teaching, they should not be teaching it.”
Strub concluded with, “I love the classroom and I love my students, but I don’t know that I want to be exposed in that way.”
In July, The Deborah Project sent similar PRA requests to Mountain View-Los Altos High School District (MVLA) and Hayward Unified School District (HUSD). They claimed to have filed the request to MVLA to “seek information about the use of overtly antisemitic Ethnic Studies teaching materials.” In the lawsuit against HUSD, the request sought to learn what is “actually being taught … relating to the subject of Ethnic Studies in general, and about the Jewish commitment to Zionism, and Israeli-Americans, in particular.”
Marcus said, “We have found [at other schools] lots of jaw-dropping materials that should not be distributed or taught in any way to public school children.”
At MVLA, the district delayed its response to the request, leading The Deborah Project to file a lawsuit alleging that the district did not comply with its records request.
*Although The Deborah Project can receive communication between parents and students with staff members, whether emails between teachers can be released depends on the content. The Supreme Court of California ruled that public agencies do not have to provide communication between government officials that are part of a “deliberative process.”
In all records the District releases, they must censor all “personally identifiable information” of students in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This includes student names, addresses, ID numbers, and other similar information.
For teachers, however, if the District decides not to share the names of the educators who submitted each material, then it is up to the courts to decide whether or not to release them. To keep teachers’ names private, the District will have to prove in court that the harm to the District in its public duty “clearly outweighs” the public’s benefit from including teachers’ names.
Throughout the email, Hansen made it clear that support would be given to teachers by site and District administrators. She wrote in her email to all teachers, “District and site administration are available to support, so don’t hesitate to ask for assistance.”
*This article was updated on 2/1/24 in order to clarify that the swastika at Woodside High School was not the direct cause of the CPRA requests and that not all emails between teachers are protected by the “deliberative process.”