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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/14/21

A Charter School's Attack On The First Amendment

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Carl Petersen
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"The man who seems to be fomenting these protests"is the son of a teacher there not an actual parent of Shirley. I don't know if that means legally he can't protest?" - Citizens of the World family member

At first glance, the subject line of the email sent "from one of [the] families" at Citizens of the World (COTW) charter school to a teacher at the school looked promising. The Shirley Avenue Elementary School community had been trying to reach out to parents whose children attend the charter school that has displaced special education classrooms and space used to provide enrichment opportunities on their campus and an inquiry about "reaching out to Shirley" made it seem like someone may have been interested in a discussion. This would have given the Shirley community an opportunity to explain the harm being done to their children and begin a conversation about how to improve opportunities for students who are mostly BIPOC and socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, the text of the email, which was obtained from COTW through a Public Records Act request, was more focused on silencing the community at Shirley than starting a dialog with them. The author blatantly disregards the First Amendment rights afforded to all Americans by asking if someone can "legally...protest" on a public sidewalk if they are "not an actual parent of Shirley." This person also suggests members of the LAUSD bureaucracy should be contacted if the principal at Shirley cannot stop the protests.

Shirley Elementary .Illegal. Protest This video was obtained in a Public Records Act request from Citizens of the World charter school. It shows what is described as an .illegal. protest by the ...
(Image by YouTube, Channel: Carl Petersen)
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Another parent described the protests against COTW's occupation of the Shirley campus as an "organized...intimidation campaign against 5 and 6-year-old kindergartener [SIC] students". This person maintained that "the first amendment does have limits and this activity is illegal under California law and Los Angeles Municipal Code." This was based on their assertion that the protesters were gathered "to bully and assault kindergarteners" by having "a megaphone blasting and cowbells ringing in their ears." They called for the placement of "undercover / plain-clothed police officers at Shirley Ave. Elementary School" and for arrests to be made.

Other documents show that the COTW parents are following the lead of the charter school's management. They have described the protests as "illegal", a "health & safety risk", "dangerous", and "unlawful" in letters to LAUSD staffers, the Los Angeles School Police Department, and the Superintendent at the time, Austin Beutner. The charter school's Business Manager even placed a call to the Shirley Avenue principal claiming that "CWC needed help" using "highly charged words to facilitate [a] response" to a "disturbance on campus."

(Image by Citizens of the World Charter Schools)   Details   DMCA

At no time during the protest did any of the protesters enter the school's campus. As shown in pictures and video obtained from COTW, the protesters engaged in a picket line past the school's entrance. The protesters were in constant motion to ensure that the entrance was not blocked and made sure that they did not impede the progress of the young students. In contrast, the representatives of COTW physically blocked the public sidewalk, which was an illegal action.

In an email that was obtained by another investigator's PRA, Shirley's principal confirms that the protest was peaceful. In this correspondence to COTW, the principal affirms that the peaceful demonstration "was NOT a safety issue." He also reminds the charter school's principal that "the peaceful demonstration is part of our democratic society and a display of civic involvement."

(Image by Citizens of the World Charter Schools)   Details   DMCA
Despite the peaceful nature of these protests, Mark Kleger-Heine, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles franchises of COTW, attempted to pressure the LAUSD to "stem the illegal protests" and to stop district employees from participating in these protests during their personal time. He states that he has "asked for LAUSD to take action over and over again" and even targets a specific Shirley teacher that he would like the district to silence. In a display of narcissism, he complains that one of the protests occurred less than 48 hours after the death of his mother-in-law. When asked if the protesters knew about this loss at the time the protest was planned, one organizer said: "Are you kidding me? Of course, we didn't know that. How could we know anything?"

For the trade group representing the charter school industry, speech does not even have to be accompanied by actions to be declared illegal. As an example, the California Charter School Association's Vice President, Cassy Horton, complains that "United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) has advanced an unlawful campaign to ban new charter co-locations on public school facilities". While the charter industry might disagree with the goals of the union, the right to advocate for this outcome is protected as free speech.

(Image by Citizens of the World Charter Schools)   Details   DMCA
If hyperbolic pleas for relief and attempting to have the LAUSD interfere with the free speech rights of its employees were not enough, COTW has taken actual steps to curtail the rights of its opponents. Despite Shirley's principal confirming that the protest was peaceful and the fact that no arrests were made by the LASPD, the charter school has filed a restraining order against one participant. Until this matter is heard in court the community member is restricted in both their first and second amendment rights. The temporary restraining order not only orders the person to stay 100 yards away from Shirley (the school requested 500 yards), but they "cannot own, possess, have, buy or try to buy, receive or try to receive, or in any other way get guns, other firearms, or ammunition" until the case is heard by a judge.

The First Amendment affords all citizens the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. The resulting speech is not always pretty and is often designed to make those with privilege uncomfortable. That does not change its right to protection.

As a school that purports to teach its students "to find new ways across disagreements and differences in opinion," the leadership at Citizens of the World needs to stop acting like colonizers and begin hearing the complaints of those affected by their forced co-location. Their current path of "bullying, intimidation, and harassment are inappropriate ways to treat others, even when you disagree", and is only increasing the tensions with a public school that has served the community for 68 years.

Carl Petersen is a parent advocate for students with special education needs and for public education. He is an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and serves as the Education Chair. As a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action. Dr. Diane Ravitch has called him "a valiant fighter for public schools in Los Angeles." For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.

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Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD's CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a " (more...)

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