How L.A.’s Brentwood Faculty Grew to become a Battleground within the Tradition Wars


Early final June, Brentwood Faculty posted a picture of a black sq. on Instagram. This was eight days after George Floyd had been killed, and it was a part of #BlackoutTuesday, a social media marketing campaign in opposition to racism and inequality. Different Los Angeles prep colleges additionally participated within the well-intentioned if largely symbolic on-line gesture, together with tens of millions of different establishments, companies, and people. However Brentwood’s black field acquired what’s often known as ratioed; it obtained extra damaging feedback than likes. Many extra.

“Brentwood is a poisonous racist cesspool for college students of coloration, however an ivory tower for the rich, white elite,” learn one of many scores of scathing remarks that saved popping up on Instagram all through the day. “In the event you cared about racial justice, you’ll shut your doorways and redistribute your obscene wealth,” learn one other.

Within the yr since Floyd’s homicide, the environment at this bucolic, super-exclusive, $38,000- to $45,000-a-year personal faculty has solely grown extra toxic, with some Brentwood alumni of coloration not solely hurling accusations of racism but additionally demanding that the varsity fully scrap what they see as a biased curriculum. In the meantime, dad and mom, academics, and directors spent a lot of final summer season and fall wrestling over the worth of books like To Kill a Mockingbird—a civil rights traditional to some; an outdated, problematic textual content to others—in what’s shaping as much as be an epic battle over the hearts and minds of the kids of America’s one %.

To make sure, scenes like this will not be occurring solely at Brentwood. Related skirmishes are breaking out at elite prep colleges throughout—at Harvard-Westlake, Marlborough, and Archer Faculty for Ladies in L.A. and in New York at Chapin and Dalton—making headlines throughout the nation in publications as ideologically divergent because the New York Submit and The Atlantic. However it’s value specializing in what’s occurring at this specific faculty off West Sundown. As a result of it’s right here at Brentwood that every one the forces arrayed on this battle—woke alumni who wish to tear the system down; academics who’ve had a tough sufficient time getting by way of the yr on Zoom, not to mention coping with paradigm shifts in instructional priorities; and indignant, annoyed mothers and dads who simply need their youngsters to get into good faculties—are most dramatically and publicly clashing, like these stranded boys battling one another on a abandoned island in Lord of the Flies, one of many novels Brentwood struck from studying lists final yr.

Extra to the purpose, there’s arguably no different faculty that’s confronted extra daunting challenges in dealing with all this discord. By some means, regardless of its finest efforts, Brentwood has managed to offend all sides of the controversy, infuriating each the forces of wokedom, who declare to have been frozen out of the varsity’s anti-racism curriculum modifications, and the battalions of fogeys who don’t perceive why their youngsters aren’t studying Harper Lee (or Arthur Miller or William Golding) at school anymore. As one exasperated dad or mum tells Los Angeles, “George Floyd dies, our children present up for varsity two months later, and each ebook that’s been learn for the final 20 years is out.”


Partwork of the explanation the black-square submit proved so controversial was its painfully ironic historic context. Till very not too long ago, Brentwood, like most prep colleges, had prided itself on its exclusivity, not inclusivity. “The joke is that these [schools] are engines for sustaining and strengthening the plutocracy,” one former prep-school administrator explains. “These colleges lecturing about fairness and justice is like listening to Swiss bankers and asset managers lecturing the world about tax transparency.”

In truth, Brentwood was based—in 1972, on property that was as soon as a navy academy—simply as prosperous white youngsters had been fleeing L.A’.s public colleges amid court-ordered desegregation. In these days, the place wasn’t practically as fancy as it’s now. “It was only a bootstrap operation with no cash, no amenities, struggling to pay its academics,” says an alum. “Very conventional and really backwards,” is how a former L.A. prep faculty instructor describes it.

There had been talks of modernizing Brentwood previously. A 1997 accrediting committee dinged the varsity for its “conventional” method, and a instructor recollects that discussions with superiors to open up the curriculum had been “pretty dead-ended.” However at the moment, there was little incentive for the varsity to alter. Because it expanded, cash started pouring in. A gymnasium and performing arts complicated went up within the Nineteen Eighties. A second campus for decrease grades was opened within the Nineteen Nineties. By 2000, Brentwood reported an annual income of $18 million. By 2010, that determine was nearer to $36 million. Reputationally, the varsity nonetheless lagged behind Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough, whose roots went again to the flip of the century or earlier. However it was undoubtedly within the sport, graduating a slew of soon-to-be celebs like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, producer Ryan Kavanaugh, and Conservative-media firebrand Andrew Breitbart. “It transitioned from a start-up to a well-established, elite faculty with a robust donor base,” says one longtime insider. Actual Property mogul Rick Caruso and Arnold Schwarzenegger each despatched their youngsters there. Calista Flockhart sat on the varsity’s board.

Fittingly, when change lastly did arrive at Brentwood, it got here within the type of a TV character. Earlier than he’d been employed to move of faculty in 2011, Mike Riera, 65, had been internet hosting a chat present on the Oxygen community and showing as a parenting correspondent on CBS’s Saturday Early Present. The creator of a number of books on elevating youngsters, Riera, who holds a PhD in psychology, was in some ways uniquely certified for the job. And the tradition at Brentwood did shift dramatically as soon as the genial tutorial took over. Beneath his management, the variety of college students of coloration elevated to 41 %. (The varsity declined to supply an in depth breakdown of that determine. A school member claims that it consists of Center Easterners, a gaggle the U.S. Census Bureau classifies as white.) Donations to the varsity virtually doubled early in his tenure and remained constant for years after. Amongst different initiatives, he introduced a brand new, far-reaching 30-year plan that included the development of a sprawling 70,000-square-foot center faculty construction. The brand new constructing opened its doorways (after gridlocking the neighborhood for years) in 2019.

Till not too long ago, Brentwood had prided itself on its exclusivity, not inclusivity.

However like all headmaster, Riera has his detractors. Some concerned with the varsity criticize him for what they see as his mental intolerance and for fostering a stifling political correctness on campus. One former trustee goes as far as to explain Riera’s reign as “a leftist, progressive, social-engineering remaking of faculty tradition,” with school-sanctioned occasions just like the annual Variety Day and social-justice-focused assemblies, publications, and curriculum updates. Some college students have had complaints about Riera, as nicely. In 2016, greater than a dozen of them wrote articles for a campus political journal complaining about “the deepening mental totalitarianism of the PC thought police that’s metastasizing all through the nation and at this very faculty.” They claimed conservative college students had been silenced and labeled racists. When Brentwood allegedly refused to let the scholars publish the journal, they printed and distributed copies themselves.

Over the past ten years, Riera has confronted different challenges, amongst them a 45-year-old Brentwood feminine chemistry instructor arrested in 2017 for having intercourse with a 16-year-old scholar (she’s presently serving a three-year sentence). And after a 2016 video circulated on-line exhibiting white college students on a ship rapping alongside to a tune that contained the N-word, outraged neighborhood members denounced the varsity for not doing sufficient to coach in opposition to racism. Main League Baseball legend Barry Bonds, a college dad or mum, posted his disgust on Fb: “That is what 40K a yr will get African American college students at Brentwood.” Nothing Riera had handled previously, although, might have ready him for the day of the black sq.. After that posting, and all of the pent-up frustration and hostility it unleashed, nothing at Brentwood could be the identical once more.

On June 4, 2020, two days after the black-square debacle, a gaggle of outraged alumni responded with a marketing campaign on Instagram. “The time has come to name out and maintain Brentwood Faculty accountable for its previous wrongdoings in opposition to Black and minority college students,” the alumni introduced from an account they named NoBlackoutBrentwood. Inside days, the group issued 11 calls for to their former faculty, together with a seat on the board of trustees, elevated Black and Latino employees, and “the growth of curriculum to incorporate range, fairness, and inclusion initiatives.” A petition itemizing the calls for accrued practically 5,000 signatures (though not all of them from Brentwood alumni). It was joined on June 19—Juneteenth—when Brentwood’s Black Household Affiliation, a school-sanctioned affinity group, launched its personal calls for. These dad and mom urged the varsity to rent a advisor to “audit . . . course descriptions, books, and tasks” for indicators of racial insensitivity. In addition they referred to as for anti-racism schooling for all dad and mom. Their petition shortly collected greater than 3,500 signatures.

Riera clearly acquired the message. “With the homicide of George Floyd, that put the whole lot on the entrance web page,” he informed Los Angeles throughout a 20-minute Zoom interview from his Brentwood workplace in February. “We needed to look exhausting at ourselves and say, ‘We are able to do higher.’ We have to actually have a curriculum that’s explicitly extra inclusive, that has extra voices, that has totally different illustration in race and gender and sexuality.” Riera approached his school together with his new marching orders. “We have to shift the curriculum,” he says he informed them. “I’m difficult you to do some work this summer season and see how one can change this.” Not all academics agreed. Some questioned if modifications had been obligatory; others wished modifications however felt rushed to make them; nonetheless others believed change was lengthy overdue.

Whereas these inside conversations had been underway, NoBlackoutBrentwood ramped up the strain by posting testimonies on Instagram from Brentwood alumni of coloration, who spoke about feeling tokenized and alienated on the faculty. “Behind their fastidiously manicured facade,” a 2018 graduate wrote, “Brentwood Faculty is an extremely racist group from high to backside.” The postings echoed a bigger reckoning throughout the complete prep-school world. A Chapin Faculty alum started posting about racism at that faculty from the Instagram account [email protected].

Dozens extra “[email protected]” accounts appeared, together with one for Harvard-Westlake that referred to as out the varsity for having “fostered bigotry for the whole thing of its existence.” Janine Hancock Jones, Harvard-Westlake’s director of range, responded on a podcast, “We’re not the identical establishment—we’re not even the identical nation—that we had been 100 years in the past. We’re not the identical nation that we had been 20 years in the past . . . six months in the past.”

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Brentwood college students Shea Robinson and Heven Ambaye (proper) in 2009.

Getty Photographs

In mid-June, Brentwood’s board agreed to satisfy over Zoom with NoBlackoutBrentwood alumni. The trustees initially appeared open to giving them what they wished. “All our calls for had been supposedly going to be met,” says Halle Ihenacho, a 2016 graduate who’s energetic with NBB. One other member, Natalie Gomez, recollects, “Quite a lot of the suggestions was, ‘This appears very, very doable.’”

However as summer season went on and the talks grew to become biweekly, the tone shifted sharply. In response to the NBB alumni, board members who as soon as appeared amenable to their enter had been now elevating their voices. “We had those that had been turning their cameras off,” Ihenacho says. “We had directors yell at Black dad and mom.”

Riera, who sits on the varsity’s board—together with former Sincere Firm CEO Brian Lee and Lance Milken, son of the Trump-pardoned financier Michael Milken, and round two dozen others—acknowledges there have been issues. “The talks had been exhausting,” he says. “I’m not going to drag any punches about that.”

Because the discussions stumbled, the NBB alumni grew more and more indignant and upset. “We spent a complete summer season enjoying cat and mouse with the administration,” Ihenacho says. “It was very scary to see how severe and the way dedicated the administration was to simply sustaining the established order.”

Different NBB alumni—lots of who had gone from Brentwood to attend school amid the safe-space debates that every one however outlined college life throughout a lot of the Obama period—felt abused. NBB member Luz Perez describes the calls as “fairly triggering and hostile.” So when Brentwood introduced an anti-racism job pressure in June, the group wasn’t impressed. Members felt the varsity had acted with out them.

Talks between NBB and Brentwood fully broke down in August, simply as Harvard-Westlake unveiled its personal brand-new, 20-page anti-racism plan. “The present nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and injustice has led our neighborhood to its personal self-examination,” the doc stated, alongside images of the manicured campus. Any further, Harvard-Westlake would “make anti-racism an important
ingredient of our curriculum and tradition.” (One Harvard-Westlake administrator complained to buddies on the time that placing the doc collectively made coping with the pandemic look simple.)

In the meantime, Brentwood dad and mom had been rising involved about modifications on the campus over the summer season. Some had been offended when Riera “strongly” inspired them to learn White Fragility: Why It’s So Laborious for White Folks to Speak About Racism and by his fixed stream of anti-racism e mail updates. Dad and mom stated they feared the varsity was reworking into one thing they hadn’t signed up for. Some alumni had felt the varsity wasn’t altering quick sufficient; now dad and mom apprehensive it was altering an excessive amount of too quick.

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Kate Savage taught artwork at Brentwood for nearly 20 years earlier than leaving in 2018. Brentwood’s dilemma, she says, “is attempting to be all issues to all folks. It needs to cater to households that need a conventional prep-school schooling. However it additionally needs to be a college for a various inhabitants. And therein lies the wrestle.”

By the point September rolled round and college reopened (nearly, at first), a few of these fears appeared to be realized. All throughout L.A.’s Westside, mothers and dads did spit takes after they noticed their youngsters’ new studying lists. In the course of the first week of lessons, dad and mom of Brentwood eighth graders had been shocked to see To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and The Crucible lacking from the course description for English 8. After they logged onto Zoom for a digital open home, a couple of dad and mom voiced their objections, whereas many extra stewed in silence, fearing neighborhood backlash in the event that they spoke out (the identical purpose each dad or mum who talked to Los Angeles for this story requested their names not be printed). The instructor was stated to have informed the visiting dad and mom, “If you’d like your youngsters to learn the classics, it’s best to have them do it of their spare time. That is the curriculum.”

Even earlier than George Floyd’s homicide, Brentwood had been tinkering with its curriculum. The earlier faculty yr, tenth-grade British Literature had develop into Modes of Communication and now explored “what it means to characterize self with respect to race, gender, faith, and sophistication.” American Literature for eleventh graders—a course that beforehand taught authors like T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.D. Salinger—was become American Id and Tradition. The English division additionally added a brand new senior elective, “LAtinx—An Exploration of Id in Los Angeles,” wherein college students “examine graffiti murals, taco tradition, tattoos…and different types of cultural expression.”

However now, in September 2020, it was the dad and mom’ flip to mobilize over social media. They began a WhatsApp message group to determine how you can combat the modifications. Informally naming themselves Involved Dad and mom, the group drew about 40 individuals. Their principal grievance: whereas Brentwood had been speaking with teams all summer season about curriculum modifications, they forgot to ask the opinion of the oldsters who had been writing the schooling checks. However after they emailed or referred to as the varsity, their complaints appeared to go nowhere. The administration’s response, in line with one dad or mum, was, “We all know what we’re doing. You could have given us the belief to coach your youngsters. So it’s as much as us to find out the curriculum.” One other dad or mum summarizes the varsity’s reply as, “We’re educators. We all know what’s finest in your youngsters. You selected our college.”

Riera recollects the talks otherwise. “On the finish of most of those conversations, folks felt like, ‘OK, I perceive it. I’m undecided that I agree with it. I’m going to provide it a while. I belief many different facets of the varsity. So we’re going to go together with it.’” Even after they disagreed, Riera says, “I [felt] like I realized one thing. I hope they realized one thing.”

He tried to additional clarify the modifications in a September e-newsletter. “We’re at an inflection level as a college, a time after we should take a deep take a look at ourselves when it comes to fairness, inclusion, and anti-racism,” he wrote. “This might lead to discomfort for some in addition to selections which are questioned by others. Nonetheless, as a college we’re pushing ahead.”

These phrases didn’t do a lot to calm dad and mom. In October, trustees obtained an nameless letter condemning the modifications. “We respectfully demand an open discussion board to debate the seemingly deliberate radicalization of the current curriculum,” the letter stated. “It isn’t acceptable to indoctrinate younger youngsters and younger adults with none context. To take action borders on little one abuse.” Across the similar time, a petition by “a present Brentwood Faculty household” appeared on-line with comparable gripes. “We don’t have to be educating our kids to be anti-racist by ONLY having literature in regards to the African American experiences in America,” the petition stated. Eventually rely, it had 72 signatures.

“It’s true that we most likely have applied extra curricular modifications throughout all divisions on this one yr than some other yr in Brentwood’s virtually 50 years of existence,” Riera acknowledged in October, clearly feeling the warmth. “Will we overstep in some areas? Presumably. Will we under-step in others? Presumably.” However Riera insists the varsity wasn’t attempting to brainwash anyone. “Each time I hear or see that phrase ‘indoctrination,’ I cringe, as a result of that’s not what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re attempting to show college students how you can assume. We’re not telling them what to assume.”

Kate Savage, who taught artwork at Brentwood for nearly 20 years earlier than leaving in 2018, places the varsity’s dilemma succinctly: “Brentwood is attempting to be all issues to all folks,” she says. “It needs to cater to the households that need a conventional prep-school schooling in order that they know their child can go to Stanford, Yale, and Harvard. However in addition they wish to be a college for a various inhabitants. And therein lies the wrestle.”

One Saturday in mid-October, a member of the Involved Dad and mom group met with a member of the Black Household Affiliation at a bar in Culver Metropolis to see if some kind of détente might be reached. It didn’t go nicely.

The BFA dad or mum, Kevin Monroe, introduced a printout of a PowerPoint presentation he made, which he’d additionally given to Riera. The slides referred to as out To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies for utilizing the N-word. One slide prompt that the books would lead Monroe’s son to assume, “I have to be inferior to different folks as a result of I used to be a slave as soon as,” and that the N-word “have to be OK to make use of.” One other slide stated, “Friends ought to view my son” as “sturdy”; they need to know that he “loves and respects girls” and is a “chief,” not a “sufferer,” “rapist,” or “passive.” The implication was that eradicating these books would assist foster the latter notion.

Because the assembly went on, the 2 dad and mom appeared to get nowhere. “What if folks go away? What if they’ll’t get folks to use to Brentwood?” requested the Involved Guardian member. “We’ll be higher off with out them,” Monroe apparently replied, including that modifications had been taking place and it was time the opposite facet moved on. The Involved Guardian member couldn’t shake the sensation that Monroe believed his facet had received.

In some methods, his facet had. Midway by way of the varsity yr, in December, Brentwood revealed its personal range, fairness, and inclusion brochure, which is nearly so long as Harvard-Westlake’s. “Variety is within the material of who we’re,” the doc solemnly started. In a press launch the identical month, the varsity introduced it had employed a advisor to guide range efforts.

Maybe not surprisingly, these efforts went about in addition to the assembly within the Culver Metropolis bar. The advisor acquired off to a rocky begin when he organized his digital dialogue classes by racial, ethnic, and identification teams, establishing separate (however equal) conversations for “white school,” “Black school,” “white dad and mom and households,” “Black dad and mom and households,” and others. After the blowback that the classes amounted to segregation, the varsity added a observe to the occasion net web page saying, “You’re welcome to affix any dialog. None are unique.” However it was too late; the “segregated” dialogue teams made headlines across the nation.

In January, one other nameless letter from a dad or mum complaining in regards to the curriculum landed in trustees’ mailboxes, and phrase of it shortly unfold by way of the varsity. “Our kids shouldn’t be punished or re-educated like Khmer Tough [sic] captives or Uyghur Muslims in China,” it learn. “We refuse to permit the mechanical and systematic dismantling of complete sections of schooling merely to pursue a degree which will or will not be universally accepted, and should in truth be no extra {that a} tautological hustle [sic].”

This time, Riera’s persistence appeared at an finish. He inspired folks to dam the letter’s originating e mail tackle, claiming the sender had violated guidelines. “This continued defamation of the varsity, the board of trustees, and its workers is opposite to what each household agrees to after they signal their contract with the varsity,” Riera wrote. “You can not dictate the varsity’s curriculum or its packages.”

The Involved Dad and mom discovered that fairly wealthy. To them, dictating the curriculum was exactly what the opposite facet had performed.

In any case, in March, the varsity despatched one other e mail making clear that its resolve to forge forward with a brand new tradition at Brentwood wouldn’t be derailed; Brentwood alerted dad and mom that not less than in the future of faculty could be beginning late in order that school might spend a morning discussing chapters of White Fragility.

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Reza Shamji, a 2020 Brentwood graduate, spent his closing days of faculty final yr urging the administration to help Black Lives Matter. He questions the varsity’s current observe of changing classics like Lord of the Flies. Studying it appeared like a ceremony of passage, he says. “Even my dad remembers studying that ebook. That ebook was crucial for me—that was the ebook.” Unifying Brentwood’s college students and fogeys, Shamji provides, is “simply a type of issues that not numerous books can do.”

As the varsity yr winds down, few in these camps appear significantly comfortable about Brentwood. Regardless of the modifications which have been made, many members of NoBlackoutBrentwood aren’t happy. “They’ve made these modifications, they usually’ve minimize us out,” says Ihenacho. “We ought to be credited for such modifications as a result of we’re those that went in and did it.” Provides Gomez, “Folks like Physician Mike Riera should fully be radicalized. That’s what wants to alter to remodel a college like Brentwood.”

Dad and mom, in the meantime, really feel like the varsity has already been remodeled past recognition. A minimum of one dad or mum plans to homeschool subsequent yr. One other will change colleges. However many dad and mom don’t see leaving as an choice. Brentwood was robust to get into, and their youngsters are comfortable there, they are saying. Quite a lot of households worry that in the event that they complain an excessive amount of, the varsity might ask them to go away and that different locations may refuse to confess their youngsters.

Maybe sensing parental discontent, the varsity lowered its annual fundraising objective from $4.2 million to $3.6 million.

“The morale at that faculty is the worst I’ve ever seen,” one school member says. The center faculty director left final yr for an additional faculty, and that individual’s former deputy has introduced he’s doing the identical, persevering with a current exodus of sad workers.

By means of all of it, it’s the scholars who’re caught within the center. A number of have shared their ideas on the curriculum modifications with the administration, however most are far too targeted on schoolwork and different actions to affix the battle.

“Every single day, you’re doing homework, you’re finding out, you’re working with buddies, you’re working with academics,” says Reza Shamji, who graduated from Brentwood final yr. When a ebook is assigned at school, he says, “we simply learn what we’re given.”

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