ENCINITAS — Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward was placed on administrative leave in a 3-1 vote just after midnight on Wednesday after community members filled the San Dieguito Union High School District board room and two overflow rooms to criticize her recent comments that many say harmfully stereotyped Chinese families in the district and call for her resignation.
James-Ward’s controversial comments came during a district Diversity, Equity and Inclusion meeting on April 11, in response to a question from Trustee Michael Allman regarding why Asian students in the district were excelling in school compared to other racial groups, a question many said was also inappropriate to ask in the first place.
“Here in San Dieguito, 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 in response. “If we look at where our kids live, in my community in Carmel Valley … up until a couple of years ago, we had a large influx of Chinese families moving in, sight unseen, into our homes, into the community. And that requires money.”
The generalization struck a nerve with hundreds of the district’s Chinese families, many of whom said they or their families came to the United States with close to nothing and communicated the importance of education as a core cultural value to their children.
The school board received hundreds of emails in backlash, and nearly over 70 parents and students shared their outrage and personal stories in over four hours of public comment on Wednesday.
“I work two full-time jobs. I work 80 hours per week to support my kids. I earn the money while everyone is still sleeping at 4 o’clock. Your comments hurt me, hurt my family and discredited my kids,” a district parent said, noting that she came straight to the meeting from her job at a local hospital.
One of the main community concerns focused on the dangers of “othering” dialogue against Asian communities, especially in the past couple of years as anti-Asian hate crimes have spiked nationwide. Students and parents also drove home the point that Asian students in the San Dieguito district face racist comments like this in classrooms every day.
“This is not to be ignored, Dr. Ward, that your comment has torn my community apart and pitted communities of color against each other,” one district student said. “These comments happen in our district every day, but unlike today, we do not have a community here to rally … for us.”
An initial apology from James-Ward in the days following her comments left much to be desired for many families, as she claimed her comments were taken out of context and that she was being targeted when a short video clip of the meeting where she made her comments was shared on YouTube. The video has since garnered over 13,000 views.
A second apology followed, and at Wednesday’s meeting, she reiterated her regret to the Asian community, with the caveat that her comments were meant to remain in closed session and not be made public. She also said she invited members of the district’s Asian and specifically Chinese communities to a Q&A earlier that day where she committed to doing better going forward.
“The purpose of the DEI training is to help us examine who we serve, to have a free exchange of ideas; it is not designed to be a public session, because it is supposed to be a safe space where we can go train and evolve. It was not supposed to be a statement on the issue,” James-Ward said. “I apologize to the Asian community, I apologize to the community at large, and I apologize to the students.”
For dozens of parents, the fact that she stated what she did in a closed session meeting showed a deep-seated bias against the Chinese community, despite her claims to have close relationships in the Asian community. Overall, many said her words highlighted a lack of qualification to serve as a superintendent and role model to students.
“The Chinese parents here, a lot of them are immigrants, they’re not rich. We emphasize education so much –– this is a core value of our culture. She said she had a good relationship with Chinese families, but if that’s really the fact, I don’t know why she would miss the point,” said Dr. Joan Chen, president of San Diego Asian Americans for Equality. “Some mistakes are too big to make.”
Also wrapped up in the discussion of James-Ward’s statements were echoes of a national conversation surrounding diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) training, critical race theory and ethnic studies in K-12 education –– programs that many students of color in the district said they have requested for years.
Some community members insisted that the very format of the DEI discussion at last week’s meeting, including data regarding the academic performance of different racial groups in the district, prompted divisive thinking that naturally led to problematic race-based comments.
This was the driving argument shared during public comment by Frank Xu, president of policy watchdog group Californians For Equal Rights (CFER), whose work involves fighting against DEI training, ethnic studies and critical race theory in schools.
“The bottom line is this: Public narratives and policies that divide people by race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin are fundamentally wrong. Without tackling the real issues of political indoctrination and ideological hijacking, neither the school district nor the community can meaningfully move forward,” CFER said in an April 18 letter to the district.
However, several others, including representatives from Encinitas 4 Equality, the district’s newly-formed DEI Committee and Asian Solidarity Collective, insisted that the incident highlighted the need for more cultural sensitivity training and curriculum, not less.
“We need more DEI training so [we] can enjoy inclusivity, patience and the culture of other peoples,” said Yusef Miller of the North San Diego County NAACP.
Miller and members of Asian Solidarity Collective also pointed out that the superintendent and board president Mo Muir had made additional problematic statements about the Latino and Black communities during the same April 11 DEI discussion.
Following James-Ward’s first statement about wealth playing a major role in Asian students’ performance, Muir said she did not think that was correct, and that it had more to do with the fact that Asian students have their parents and grandparents living with them and supporting them in their education and studies.
“Talking about the Asian community, I’m so grateful they have their parents and grandparents at home,” Muir said, noting specifically that parents are present to “pick them up.”
James-Ward responded that it requires a great deal of money to have an entire family immigrate over, and claimed that in other racial and ethnic groups, such as the Hispanic community, “they don’t have that type of money. Parents are working two jobs, they’re working from sunup to sundown. They are not having the same conversations because the parents aren’t home, they have to work, so they’re not having those conversations to the same degree.”
Many community members saw these comments as offensive statements against Latinx as well as Black communities and the support they show for their children.
“If you’re upset about Dr. Ward’s comments, then you should be equally as upset about [Muir’s] comments that Black and brown families are not intact,” a representative with Asian Solidarity Collective told attendees.
Following extensive public comment, board members Allman, Muir, Julie Bronstein and Katrina Young went into a closed session just before midnight to discuss James-Ward’s comments and the community’s feedback. Back in the open session, Muir reported that the board had voted 3-1 in favor of administrative leave, with Young dissenting.
The five-person board is currently short one member since Area 3 representative Melisse Mossy announced her resignation last week.
All four board members expressed gratitude to all the speakers for sharing their stories and expressed a desire to see the district continue to grow and improve. Allman and Muir specifically spoke out against James-Ward’s comments at the April 11 meeting.
“I condemn her words in the strongest possible way,” Allman said. “It’s our job to get it right, we’re gonna keep trying to do the right thing.”
What happens next for James-Ward, whose term as superintendent began in November 2021, and the district, is unclear. Superintendents are ultimately decided by the board of trustees after a lengthy application process. The district did not respond to requests for comment about the administrative leave process in time for publication.
Regardless, student board representative Amanda Chen said, there is a clear need to uplift Asian voices in district leadership and bring them into conversations about diversity and equity work.
“Historically and currently, the Asian community is definitely overlooked. Something that I haven’t heard brought up yet is that at the DEI meeting, there was not one Asian person in the room,” she said, noting that there is also no Asian representation on the board itself or the DEI Committee.