Santa Rosa’s ‘Ethnic Studies with a Cop’ Program Prompts Backlash

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Ethnic studies with a cop loteria
Students played ‘Mexican American History LOTERIA!’ as part of the Santa Rosa’s ‘Ethnic Studies with a Cop’ pilot program. Photo: Santa Rosa Police Department

Last October, a few months after officers from the Santa Rosa Police Department fired tear gas and rubber bullets at racial justice protesters, officers gathered at the Finley Center with a dozen children from Meadow View Elementary School. 

The police officers, who were acting as teachers’ aides for the afternoon, distributed “Mexican American History LOTERIA!” cards to participants. Among the choices were boycott, Dolores Huerta, hunger strike, pesticides and … grapes.

The cards were part of a hastily-prepared pilot program, “Ethnic Studies with a Cop,” organized as part of the response to the summer’s racial justice protests. To critics of the program, it represents the latest illustration that the city and police department are not taking activists’ demands seriously.

Dr. Ron López, a professor of Chicano Studies at Sonoma State University, notes that Dolores Huerta, one of the individuals included in the course curriculum, was beaten by San Francisco police at a lawful protest in 1988 when she was 58. She suffered broken ribs and required emergency surgery to remove her spleen. 

“When the farmworkers’ struggle was going on, the police did not represent the farmworkers or Dolores Huerta; they were there to protect the landowners and property,” López says. “They attacked farmworkers, arrested them and participated in their deportations. And now you’re telling me that a police officer is going to be assisting in instruction of Huerta’s story? It just sort of stretches the imagination.”

This month, a group of Santa Rosa students, parents, and community members wrote an open letter opposing the continuation of “Ethnic Studies with a Cop.”

The program, which ended in December, consisted of 12 students in 3rd through 6th grade participating in seven learning sessions co-facilitated by Santa Rosa police. Accompanying the letter is a survey created by local students’ rights organization Save Your VI in which 87 percent of 278 respondents say they weren’t aware of the initiative and 77 percent say they feel that police aren’t qualified to discuss ethnic studies with students. 

In November, after hearing about the program, the Bohemian filed a public records request seeking course materials and emails that might illuminate how “Ethnic Studies with a Cop” came to be. 

The program was a partnership between the Community Engagement Office and SRPD in collaboration with Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks Distance Learning Camp & Care. Meadow View Principal Jean Walker said that she first heard of the program when the Bohemian emailed her about it last week. 

Walker then called Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks, learning that the program was part of the students’ after-school activity time, not their school day. While campuses are closed because of the pandemic, some working parents pay to enroll their kids in a day camp at the Finley Center where small groups complete schoolwork and then participate in after-school enrichment activities. 

Walker says that Meadow View has three cohorts of students attending the camp. She was told that one of her cohorts was selected to participate in “Ethnic Studies with a Cop” because they were the right age for the curriculum. According to the Education Data Partnership, the vast majority of Meadow View students are Hispanic or Latinx (89 percent in 2018–19) and socioeconomically disadvantaged (90 percent in 2018–19). 

According to Telles, the idea for the program came through listening sessions held with various community groups between July and December 2020.

“Through those meetings,” Telles said, “it was frequently expressed that more positive interactions between law enforcement and youth—particularly BIPOC youth—can help to bridge better long term trust and relationships. ‘Ethnic Studies with a Cop’ … was born from these community conversations and was an opportunity for youth to interact with officers in a safe space.”

But while Telles says that parents of the 12 participants felt positive about the program, other Santa Rosa parents and educators were alarmed.

“We feel that this program is deeply misguided and was carried out with insufficient public input,” states the open letter. “We do not feel that law enforcement facilitation contributes to the teaching of ethnic studies, and we feel that it violates the needs of students, especially BIPOC students…”

Dr. López draws a distinction between ethnic studies—which he says provides students with the tools to critically analyze the society that we live in—and social studies, which he says is designed to instill an understanding of politics and society in a way that promotes patriotism and produces what mainstream America might call “good citizens.” He says that “Ethnic Studies with a Cop” was actually the latter. 

“Ethnic studies is a well-defined field of study that grew out of activist movements of the 1960s and ’70s,” López says.

Telles acknowledges that the program’s name caused upset. She said her staff learned the lesson that “ethnic studies” is a unique and important term that came from the community and those who have done the work to decolonize education. 

Emails among SRPD officers and between the police and Telles reveal that “Ethnic Studies with a Cop” was created quickly, with several officials inside the police department first learning about it after it had begun. Course materials were created by Gustavo Mendoza, who works for the Community Engagement Office. 

On Sept. 22, in a brief email exchange with Police Chief Rainer Navarro, one lieutenant, concerned about whether the police department was responsible for the curriculum, wrote “I’m not sure if I’m on board with us doing this…Have we committed to this?” 

In an Oct. 28 email to a city communication coordinator, a sergeant raised concerns about the timing of the course.

“I think the concept of the classes is good. I just get worried that the national ‘narrative’ is that law enforcement has ‘institutional racism’ and we are promoting a course on Ethnic Studies with a Cop. I think I am just overthinking it,” the sergeant said. 

Save Your VI’s community survey found that only 20 percent of respondents think the initiative will help improve or inform community policing. Further, 87.3 percent think it would be a good idea to have an educator teach ethnic studies to law enforcement.

While Meadow View students were participating in “Ethnic Studies with a Cop,” a different Santa Rosa school district was busy grappling with the value of ethnic studies and, separately, with law enforcement’s presence on their campuses. 

After five years of development, Santa Rosa City Schools (SRCS) voted to approve ethnic studies as a graduation requirement starting in 2025, with course offerings beginning this fall.

Elizabeth Evans, director of Teaching and Learning at SRCS, says, “Research shows that students taking ethnic studies courses have better attendance, graduation rates and grade point averages. In SRCS, we are working to pay closer attention to the value of students’ cultural wealth. When students feel seen and valued, they do better in school.”

The SRCS Board also spent months of 2020 studying their schools’ relationship with the police. A survey of more than 2,000 students found that 8 percent of respondents had a negative experience with a school resource officer. In November, after months of meetings, the SRCS Board decided not to renew their agreement to have officers on their campuses, citing a need for meaningful change.

EXTRA CREDIT: The Bohemian sorted and organized the relevant emails and attachments the city released in response to a public records request. Learn more about Ethnic Studies with a Cop by viewing the documents here.