Jesuit High School in California Accused of Teaching Critical Race Theory
Concerned parents at the 58-year-old Jesuit High School in Sacramento claim that instruction inspired by critical race and gender theory violates the school’s religious mission, and one family has filed a civil suit that alleges their son was expelled for questioning CRT precepts.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — George Floyd’s death in police custody last year sparked a national reckoning that has upended K-12 education, with new lesson plans on the role of race in the nation’s founding, students calling out classmates’ “white privilege,” and public-school board meetings turning contentious.
Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California, an all-boys college preparatory institution founded in 1963, currently with more than 1,000 students, is no exception.
On June 23, 2020, five students wrote a letter discussing painful experiences with racism on campus. Then a group of “Concerned parents, alumni and donors of Jesuit High School” challenged the administration’s efforts to respond to the students’ complaints, asserting that the nature of the measures the school was seeking to implement “have no place at Jesuit High School or any other Catholic school.”
And this summer, a Latino family sued the school, alleging that their son’s civil rights had been violated when he was expelled for “questioning CRT.”
CRT, or critical race theory, is a catch-all term that spans neo-Marxist indictments of U.S. economic and social institutions and more modest critiques of America’s “original sin” of slavery, say experts. But Christopher Bakes, an alumnus of Jesuit High School and a member of the concerned parent group, worries that his beloved alma mater has not adopted an open, explicitly Catholic response to racism in the school and in the United States, and students will suffer as a result.
“Once you turn down a road that is not your road, you are making it up as you go, and you will inflict collateral damage,” Bakes told the Register, expressing the sense of betrayal that has fueled the controversy.
“When I was at the school, we were given the comfort of the Church’s teaching to lead orderly and good lives.”
On Sept. 14, 2020, the school circulated the June 23 letter written by the five students to every student’s personal email. The letter called out racist behavior and language at the school, lobbied for more faculty support and “safe” spaces for students who faced bullying, and urged the administration to crack down on those who did not comply with the code of conduct that barred such behavior.
The letter proposed changes across the curriculum to foster diversity and inclusion.
“In our English classes, we need to have more dialogues with students about racial inequity and discrimination,” the students said. “Science classes should also allocate more time to studying underrepresented scientists.” And in math, “Social Justice can be incorporated into the curriculum by viewing how statistics perpetuate harmful stereotypes that limit the way we perceive the spectrum of races.”
The theology faculty “should help further mitigate gender roles ... homophobia, and racism in their teachings,” the letter stated.
Jordan Brown, the school’s director of equity and inclusion, encouraged students to sign the document. But the letter was not initially sent to parents, though many heard about it from their sons.
Mary Herrmann was among a multiracial group of parents who were turned off by the school’s apparent lack of transparency. She said she worried about how the proposals might affect Jesuit High’s curriculum and religious identity, as well as student morale and friendships.
During an “amicable” meeting with the principal on the matter, Herrmann asked that the letter be sent to parents. But her “request was dismissed,” she told the Register.
Later, the school shared the letter with parents and apologized for not doing it sooner.
A subsequent discussion with Brown, the director of equity and inclusion, offered little reassurance to Herrmann.
When she questioned terms like “white privilege” and noted her close friendships with people from various racial groups, she said Brown politely pushed back, observing that white people often did not realize that they were inherently racist. He offered educational materials designed to assist her in the process of self-reflection.
As the 2020-2021 school year progressed, Herrmann, Bakes and other concerned parents flagged an English class handout that encouraged students to question their racial, gender and religious identity. And they were alarmed when emails from administrators or faculty included preferred pronouns, suggesting that the social inequities to be addressed in the wake of George Floyd’s death would include the needs of gender non-conforming individuals, a pattern repeated in many public and private schools across the country.
The parents’ group sought but failed to secure meetings with school personnel and Jesuit Father Scott Santarosa, the order’s western provincial, though some snagged individual meetings, and Herrmann reported that several problematic initiatives were dropped after she brought them to the school’s attention.
The group established a website, FaithNotRace.org, which posted communications with school and Catholic Church authorities. It documented specific problems, while providing links to Church teachings on race and gender ideology.
“[R]acism is real,” and “[d]ialogue, education, and action are necessary to stamp it out,” said the group, laying out its views on the website. But the “introduction of identity politics, shaming students about white privilege, deconstructing the past, reorienting history, and openly advocating and inculcating a tired and failed ideology into every classroom and every subject have no place at Jesuit High School or any other Catholic school.”
Jesuit High School, for its part, continues to defend its engagement on racial-equality issues.
In a Sept. 13 statement to the Register, the school said its “academic, religious, and moral foundation is rooted in our Catholic faith and follows the doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church and our Ignatian Charism.”
“Jesuit Sacramento does not use critical race theory (CRT) in its teaching or course preparation and has no plans to change any curriculum to include CRT principles,” the school said.
The school did not respond to questions about its handling of gender-identity issues. But the statement said that administrators had generally made every effort to respond to parental concerns.
The members of the concerned parents group, however, remain unconvinced and deeply skeptical of the school’s public messaging. They have hired canon lawyer Laura Morrison to represent them with school and Church authorities and to build a case that may eventually reach the Congregation for Education in Rome.
Changes in Curriculum
On the surface, Jesuit High School might appear unchanged, with its alumni and donor outreach materials upholding the “traditional ‘men for others’ and Roman Catholic messaging,” said Morrison in a Feb. 24 letter to Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento. But changes in the curriculum have replaced religious content with secular precepts, altering the students’ “actual classroom experience.”
Morrison reported that materials from the University of Michigan had been adopted for teacher training, despite the fact that other documents produced by the same university program attacked “Christianity, ‘ableness,’ cisgenderism, and United States citizenship as being indicators of ‘privilege’ and therefore ‘oppressive.’”
Bishop Soto has yet to respond to the group’s claims, and a spokesperson for the Diocese of Sacramento declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, the controversy at the school recently gained more traction, after a Latino student, the child of one of the parents that had raised concerns, was expelled last spring. His parents filed suit in July, sparking media headlines.
The 17-year-old student, identified in the lawsuit as “A.P.,” had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and was enrolled under an accommodation program.
The lawsuit accuses Jesuit High School of discrimination on the basis of race and disability, and of breach of contract, and seeks damages. The school, Jesuit Father John McGarry, its president, and Michael Wood, its principal, are named as defendants.
According to the lawsuit, A.P.’s troubles date back to a classroom discussion triggered by the students’ June 2020 letter on racism. A teacher had asked students to share their opinion of the letter, and A.P. said it was “retarded.” The teacher reprimanded him for his language, and the matter appeared to end there.
But shortly after an April 2021 school sports event, A.P. was accused of using racial and homophobic slurs.
“When asked about the racial slur, A.P. was adamant that he had never directed the term at or used it to refer to a person,” the lawsuit asserts.
A.P. repeated that claim during a lengthy video-facilitated appearance before the school’s disciplinary board that also examined his use of the word “fag.”
The meeting included “hostile cross-examination by multiple persons,” and the lawsuit characterized the school’s approach as “abusive and discriminatory,” particularly for a Mexican-American teenager with learning issues.
The principal subsequently informed A.P.’s parents that he “would not be allowed to continue attending JHS,” and his transcript would receive a notation of “withdrawn — discipline.”
Jesuit High School, in its statement to the Register, confirmed the school had filed a motion to dismiss the “baseless” lawsuit.
The school said the issues raised by the group of concerned parents “had nothing to do with a lawsuit that a former student and his father recently filed related to Jesuit Sacramento’s student discipline process. It is disconcerting that anyone would try to use litigation as a platform for their own personal or political agenda.“
A Tough Sell?
For now, Morrison, the canon lawyer, and her clients are standing their ground. She has just sent another letter to Bishop Soto and speaks of preparing the case for review in Rome.
That could be a tough sell.
For starters, a successful case requires “concrete evidence,” not hearsay, advised Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar of canonical services at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“A student coming home with a story from the classroom is one thing, but if a teacher is handing out materials that take positions contrary to the faith, that is an entirely different animal,” he said.
And a case that involved a high school “operating under the administration of the Jesuits” would pose an additional challenge. A bishop would be disinclined to act on the parents’ complaints, Father Fox suggested, in part, because the “Jesuits are providing priests to help out in the diocese.”
But Father Fox was sympathetic to the concerns raised by such parents. Setting aside specific objections to critical race theory, he noted that many of the faithful yearned for a more “full-throated defense of Church teaching” than their child’s school was prepared to offer and that new, more explicitly faithful Catholic schools were opening to address that hunger.
So if the local bishop will not take up their concerns, he advised, frustrated parents should remember that they still possess “the ultimate weapon,” he said. “They can say, ‘I will take my children elsewhere.’”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated since it was posted today.