Discussions about an anti-bullying policy and sexual education curriculum created an at-times heated board meeting Tuesday for the San Diego Unified School District.
Neither issue was up for a significant vote before the board, but they both have been controversial among some district families.
Trustees did vote to expand the district's wellness program, which includes physical education, nutrition, safe-school environment and social-emotional wellness.
The program also includes a sex education curriculum some parents say is age inappropriate and contains pornographic material. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition asking for the curriculum to be suspended.
Several people in the audience spoke in favor of the sex education curriculum, saying it's inclusive and recognizes people of different sexual orientations.
Others, however, had serious problems with the curriculum and said it downplayed abstinence, was misogynistic and pornographic.
A teacher who has taught the curriculum said it does include abstinence as a major component and has no pornography. District staff members said some of the material people were referring to were from online additional resources and not part of the curriculum, and at least one website in question has been taken off the resource list.
Trustees also voted to enter into a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to expand its "No Place for Hate" initiative and to form an intercultural committee with members of various faiths and cultures to help create school environments that protect all students from bullying.
In April, the board voted on an anti-bullying policy that focused on protecting Muslim students, which led to complaints that the policy favored one religion over another. Some equated the district's action to adherence to Sharia law, the rules of the Islamic faith.
A group of parents represented by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund sued the district, claiming that the policy violates Constitutional law by singling out Muslim students for protection.
Since April, trustees and district staff members have said the anti-bullying policy had been misinterpreted, as it was one part of a broader mission to protect students of all faith.
Still, the district also took steps to address some concerns that had been raised. District Family and Community Engagement Director Stan Anjan had said in April that Muslim holidays would be added to school calendars to help teachers and principals schedule after-school events that don't conflict with Islamic celebrations they might now be aware of.
On Tuesday night, a presentation before the board noted that major holidays of all faiths would be included on the calendars.
Another change addressed the lawsuit's complaint about the district's work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Some members of CAIR have been found to be associated with terrorism, but the large organization has said those few bad apples shouldn't taint the entire group.
The agenda item before the board Tuesday stated that the staff was being redirected from forming a formal partnership with CAIR and instead would form an intercultural committee with many faiths.
That change itself proved controversial, with several people appearing before the board to argue that CAIR is a valuable resource to the district. Several people also said the district should not back away from its earlier vow to help Muslim students who are subject to bullying and harassment at a higher level than other students.
Among those speakers was Hanif Mohebi, executive director the San Diego CAIR office, who said his organization wants to continue to work with the district and has always supported creating a positive environment for students of all faiths.
"We have never come out to say it should be only one group, but I think also we should realize that it might be a mistake not to focus on groups that are targeted much more than the rest," he said. "That being said, we expect the district to publicly acknowledge and recognize the work that we hae done for over a decade with the school district, and also we expect the district to recommit to working with us and all the other responsible parties to serve all students."
Later, Mohebi said CAIR would be be willing to work with the new intercultural committee.
Board members were in support of the intercultural committee, but some also said special attention to Muslim students is warranted.
"One of the issues that very clearly needs to be addressed today is the discrimination and harassment and vilification of the Muslim community in our community," Trustee John Lee Evans said.
Board President Richard Barrera said there has been significant misunderstandings about what the district has done to protect Muslim students, which led to a verbal confrontation with people in the auditorium.
"This was not about promoting a religion," Barrera said. "Never was. This was certainly not about promoting Sharia law."
A few people in the audience verbally disagreed and one man began yelling comments at Barrera, including "Obey the Law," "It's about leftist politics," "You're lawless" and "Honor the Constitution."
Barrera said the outburst was an example what Muslim students go through every day.
"If we're going to hear that as a school board, we knew that our kids were hearing a lot worse," he said. "You can shout and you can express hate, but .. we're going to step up as a unified community to defend our students."