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San Dieguito superintendent’s comments about Asian students draw backlash, apology

Exterior of the San Dieguito Union High School District administration offices.
(Courtesy)

Superintendent apologizes after she said Asians do well because they are wealthy families who come from China

During a San Dieguito Union High School board training session Monday about diversity, equity and inclusion, Board Trustee Michael Allman asked the district superintendent a question: “Do we know why Asian students do so well in school?”

He was asking about district data that showed that several groups of Asian students in the district — Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese students — receive fewer D and F grades than other racial groups.

Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward told Allman she knows part of the reason: It’s because wealthy families have been moving into San Dieguito from China.

“We have an influx of Asians from China, and the people who are able to make that journey are wealthy. You cannot come to America and buy a house for $2 million unless you have money,” James-Ward said.

James-Ward, who is Afro-Latina, added: “In my community, in Carmel Valley ... we had a large influx of Chinese families moving in, sight unseen, into our homes, into the community, and that requires money.”

Cheryl James-Ward is the superintendent of San Dieguito Union High School District.
(Courtesy)

Chinese families, James-Ward said, have parents and grandparents at home to support their children. Meanwhile, James-Ward said, some Latino families “don’t have that type of money” that Chinese families have, and they have parents who are too busy working to help their children at home.

Within hours, James-Ward’s comments drew criticism from some who said they reinforce model-minority stereotypes of Asians as all being high-achieving and high-income. The day after the board meeting, an unidentified user posted on YouTube a three-minute video of James-Ward’s comments about Asian students. The video received more than 2,800 views in one day.

A San Diego organization that has opposed affirmative action and criticized school ethnic studies programs as being racially divisive condemned James-Ward’s comments on Tuesday, saying they constitute “inflammatory bigotry” and that they stereotype Asians.

“Dr. Ward’s comments were deeply offensive, grossly inaccurate and intentionally divisive, which ill-fits her leadership role in a major school district,” the organization Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, whose leaders are Chinese-American, said in a statement.

In an interview, James-Ward accused whoever published the video of taking her comments out of context and causing “this firestorm” in order to smear her. She said she doesn’t know who posted the video, but she suspects it has something to do with backlash she has received over San Dieguito’s recent redistricting dispute and a complaint she recently filed against Allman. She declined to describe the allegations in the complaint.

“We have this person trying to play at the heartstrings of our community, to divide the community, to harm me. That’s what this is about,” James-Ward said of the person who posted the video. “To take what I said so out of context and put that little thing there is wrong to the core.”

San Dieguito has been in chaos for months as the board’s conservative members, including Allman and Board President Maureen Muir, have clashed with the board’s liberal members and James-Ward over issues including redistricting. Allman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Later in her interview, James-Ward said she “probably should’ve been a little more careful and thoughtful in my words.” She said what she meant is that students are successful when they have the so-called “four capitals” — emotional, financial, educational and social capital.

“I should’ve said it differently, right, because the issue is very complex,” she said. “I should’ve just left it at ‘complex.’”

After finishing her interview, James-Ward called a reporter back to say she apologizes if her words hurt anybody in San Dieguito.

“If I harmed any member of my community, I am deeply sorry, and that would never be my intent,” she said.

San Dieguito, which has 12,700 middle and high school students, is overall a largely wealthy district, with a median household income upwards of $135,000 and fewer low-income families than other school districts.

About 12 percent of San Dieguito’s Asian students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to 19 percent of San Dieguito students overall, according to state data. A higher share of Latino students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, at 44 percent, but most Latino students in the district, 56 percent, are not socioeconomically disadvantaged.

People need to be careful when talking about Asian students having higher performance than other groups because it can reinforce what has been a historical pattern of scapegoating Asians for problems other communities are facing, said Samuel Museus, an education professor at UC San Diego who has written about race, equity and Asian-American studies. The most recent obvious example of this is how Asians and Asian-Americans have been targeted for violent hate crimes because of COVID-19, Museus said.

This kind of scapegoating, Museus said, leads groups to compete with each other for resources rather than doing what should be done: scrutinizing how the education system provides resources and opportunities to some groups and denies them to others.

Characterizing all Asian students as high-performing and well-off also obscures the diversity of groups within Asian-American communities and the fact that some Asian-Americans are disadvantaged and low-performing, Museus said. Not all Asians are from China or are of Chinese descent, and not all Asian students are from high-income families, he said.

The issue is complicated by the fact that many people aren’t well-versed in how to talk about Asian and Asian-American communities in the context of racial equity because of this model minority myth, Museus said.

“Because of the stereotype and the very simplistic data that people use over and over and reinforces those stereotypes, oftentimes we don’t think we need to include Asian-Americans in this conversation unless it’s about why they’re succeeding so well,” Museus said. “So all of these complexities, these racial complexities, are not well understood and people don’t know how to talk about it.”

Museus said James-Ward’s language about Chinese families moving into Carmel Valley “sight unseen, into our homes,” appeared to reinforce a common “othering” of Asians and Asian-Americans. He said that kind of language has fueled scapegoating of Asian and Asian-American communities in the U.S. throughout history.

“It’s differentiating the Asian immigrant that’s an outsider from those of us in the community who own these homes,” Museus said.

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On April 14, a restorative meeting was held at Canyon Crest Academy to repair the harm James-Ward’s comments had on the Asian American community and particularly, Chinese American families. James-Ward also issued an apology letter to district families on April 15.

“I made comments on Monday that were hurtful. I understand the magnitude of my comments and how I angered and disappointed our Asian-American community,” James-Ward wrote. “I spoke insensitively with a bias I didn’t know was there. I am so sorry; I fully acknowledge this bias and am committed to uniting with my community to work through this bias, learning from neighbors and peers, and preventing anything like this from happening again. I sincerely apologize to our entire community, especially our Asian-American neighbors, for triggering pains the Asian community has
experienced in the past and for causing new suffering.”

James-Ward’s letter outlined next steps for continued healing and action which include continued staff equity and inclusion training with more district voices from multiple perspectives and “Telling Our Stories” town hall meetings for families to share their experiences and stories so the district can learn more about each other.

The dates for the town halls are May 9, May 24, May 18 and June 1 at 6-7:30 p.m. The locations will be shared at a later date.

“My promise to all of you is to strive each day to learn more about the needs of the community I serve,” James-Ward wrote. “I ask for your grace and help to be a better leader and a better ally.”

Karen Billing contributed to this report.


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