UPDATE: Manhattan Beach School Board President Claims Parents Fighting CRT Are Defaming Her, Threatens Legal Action

Manhattan Beach School Board

As the expression goes, “If you’re catching flak, it means you’re over the target.” WeTheParents are catching flak in the form of cease and desist letters simply because they’re advocating for their children in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District – and exercising their First Amendment rights. It’s the ultimate in privilege to be able to unleash taxpayer-funded lawyers because you are too cowardly to fight your own battles and address legitimate concerns submitted in a proper and respectful fashion by a parents group who are well within their legal and constitutional rights.

Manhattan Beach USD Board President Jennifer Fenton has become the face of that privilege the Board and Trustees claim they are trying to eliminate from the district. It’s not a good look.

Fagan Friedman & Fulfrost LLP (Fagan-Friedman LLP) acts as general counsel for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, and it seems that Fenton is using them as her own personal enforcers. The law firm issued their first cease and desist letter against WeTheParents in early October, which was emailed to the group as a whole with the subject line:

False and Defamatory Statements Contained in October 2, 2021, Email and Demand that WeTheParentsMB Immediately and Permanently Cease and Desist from Further and Ongoing Defamation

Interestingly, the only board member the WeTheParentsMB was accused of defaming was Jennifer Fenton, as an individual. The letter urged WeTheParentsMB to “promptly retract these false and defamatory statements about Ms. Fenton and issue an apology.”

Not only does Fenton want absolution; she wants obeisance.

We are General Counsel to the Manhattan Beach Unified School District (“District”) Board of Education (Board”). We are in receipt of a copy of an October 2, 2021, email from WeTheParentsMB “CALLING ALL RESIDENTS” to unwarranted and defamatory attacks against Board President Jennifer Fenton.

The term “unwarranted” is strictly a matter of opinion. Just because you fail to see the issue or concern being presented doesn’t mean such an issue or concern doesn’t exist. The term “defamatory attacks” is a matter of legal argument, so Fagan-Friedman LLP is at least in its wheelhouse in addressing this point.

The letter continues:

Before addressing the blatantly false and defamatory statements made against Ms. Fenton however, it is important to correct your apparent basic misunderstanding of the role and authority of individual school Board members.

The Board President’s inability to act unilaterally is notably described in Board Bylaw 9323, Meeting Conduct, regarding the public’s right to address the Board.

Again the use of the term “defamatory,” and again referencing only Jennifer Fenton. WeTheParents have also raised concerns about Board member Jason Boxer, as referenced in Part 2 and Part 3 of RedState’s exclusive. But this letter only seems fixated on what was written about Board President Jennifer Fenton.

The attorney again lectures WeTheParents about the group’s “misunderstanding” about the role and authority of individual school board members. However, Jennifer Fenton is the elected representative who became president of the board. Fenton has the role and authority to run the board meetings, decide how these meetings will be conducted, who is allowed to speak at said meetings, and who is not. Fenton is also the one who presents the direction the full board has chosen to take. It is interesting that the issues WeTheParents have with the board’s direction only cropped up since Jennifer Fenton became board president. So, whether decisions and authority are made by the collective board, it is Jennifer Fenton’s leadership as the face, main voice, and point of contact with the board that is seen by the public at large. It is also Fenton who holds the weight of responsibility for properly communicating the board’s goals, direction, and actions to the public. The fact that Fenton used the general counsel of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to issue a cease and desist letter shows that she has failed miserably in that role.

This letter also references WeTheParents’ October 2 newsletter, which encouraged Manhattan Beach residents to write letters to Fenton in order to address the concerns mentioned in the newsletter. When did a letter-writing campaign become a revolutionary act? Apparently when it involves parents making it known that they’re watching what the School Board does and demand a say in how their children are taught.

10-2-2021 Newsletter from WeTheParents

The portion of the newsletter referencing Board President Jennifer Fenton reads:

Fenton subscribes to the same beliefs as the group of locals who accused MB of Systemic Racism and needing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEIC) to train residents to be “Anti-Racists.”

In a 4-1 vote, City Council rejected the request by the Bruce’s Beach Task Force members to be a DEIC, but that did not stop Fenton from targeting our schools for something much worse.

Under Fenton’s leadership, she has replaced Academic Excellence and Character Development with ideological beliefs in Social Justice, Gender Fluidity, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, White Fragility, and Racial Reckoning, just to name a few.

If you’re not familiar with these terms, you’re not alone.

She intends to hire CLEAR, a company that will act as the race and equity police with classroom walkthroughs, race training for teachers, targeting our youngest with “choosing your gender” lesson plans, and more.

She already paid CLEAR $25,000 to write a report, concluding the Board should hire them!

The School Board no longer aligns with the principles and values that have made our schools the gold standard of excellence.

And worse yet, when parents try to inform fellow residents of what is occurring in our schools by publicly speaking at School Board meetings, Fenton suppresses their message:

  • no participation available via ZOOM; only 1 person in the in-person meeting at a time; speeches on the same topic are cut off; regardless of how many speakers attend, she arbitrarily decides how many will be heard.
  • Squelching speech does not happen in our City Council meetings.
  • The 5 Council Members and the City Attorney ensure all residents who want to speak are not denied. Council meetings are via Zoom, and the link is readily accessible.
  • In the Council meeting that rejected a DEIC, over 400 residents were in attendance on Zoom.
  • It took hours to get through all of the public comments, but no resident was denied their right to weigh in on this crucial decision.
  • There was an overwhelming response from residents to reject the idea of a DEIC, and we are grateful to Council members for listening to the voices of the like-minded majority.

By suppressing public participation in the School Board meetings, Ms. Fenton gives the appearance she is trying to prevent a similar overwhelming response from residents rejecting her decisions and plans for our schools.

Irrespective of her motives, MB residents expect to participate in the School Board meetings with the same transparent access as the City Council meetings.

As of the date of this email, Ms. Fenton has still not made the Board meetings available via Zoom for the October 6th and 20th meetings scheduled to discuss CLEAR. We hope she will change course.

I read nothing inflammatory in this newsletter or recognize any calls to Manhattan Beach residents to write anything untoward. There is also nothing that even comes close to the legal definition of “defamation.” The newsletter simply lists the group’s grievances with an elected official’s actions and calls for some community organizing to address the problem.

So, the cease and desist letter sent by Fagan-Friedman LLP is not only boilerplate, but a knee-jerk reaction meant to individually target WeTheParents and intimidate them – and any who might want to join them or speak up about other issues – into silence.

That was also the intention of the threatening rant with which Board President Jennifer Fenton started the October 6 School Board meeting. Fenton admits that her rant was also precipitated by the October 2 Newsletter referenced above:

To respond to a very public and widespread newsletter that went out over the weekend from a group called “WeTheParentsMB,” I’ll start by saying that the email is full of lies and is both slanderous as well as defamatory. For those who are watching and are part of this group, please know that I’ve spoken with attorneys and have subsequently filed a report with Manhattan Beach Police Department. We’ve also contacted the web host where We the Parents MB email address is registered, to report the abuse and misconduct. This anonymous group is trying to derail that which the school board was elected to do – oversee education and represent the interests of our students and staff.

There’s that word “defamatory” again. Fenton also used “slanderous,” which is incorrect. Since the newsletter was published, it would only apply to the written word, which is defamation. According to her bio, Fenton was a lawyer in her past life; so she should know the difference. And, she filed a police report because a group of parents engaged in community organizing? What crime was she reporting? And yes, the group is trying to derail something – Fenton’s agenda.

Fenton continued:

Contrary to the myriad of lies that are viciously being spread about me, I have not replaced academic excellence or character development. Curriculum change requires a process, including a committee with teacher and parent involvement as well as a board vote. I unilaterally do not have the authority to impart CRT, white fragility or racial reckoning into our teacher’s course material. Nor have we as a governing board ever discussed these theories or their application in our K-12 instruction. MBUSD has always and will continue to teach “real Math, Science, History and English.” We follow state mandated guidelines, including common core standards, California content standards and California curriculum framework. We’ve never veered from the agenda of providing the best education for our students. So, to say that I’ve replaced any of our academics is one hundred percent disinformation. It’s untrue. Let me repeat myself. There is zero validity to this outlandish plan.

Other portions of the October 2 WeTheParents newsletter discussed actual coursework that has been introduced to students, and where parents have recorded their objection to its inclusion. The newsletter documents that these objections were ignored by the Board.

On October 20th we are hosting a workshop to discuss an equity audit that was conducted for MBUSD. And during that conversation we’ll explore next steps to make our campuses and our curriculum more inclusive. But there have been no changes and there will be no changes until we as a community determine our priorities and next steps. Speaking directly to those behind We the Parents MB your dissenting voices have been heard. Now stop disseminating lies. My political views are irrelevant. This role is non-partisan and I have never once brought politics into the conversation. In fact, no one has ever asked me what beliefs I subscribe to. So I’m left to wonder do you really know me or is it easier for your to forward a nameless email and send me harassing and insulting messages online.

From the tone of the screed and these references, it appears Fenton moved from the realm of professional to personal quite quickly.

And speaking of another baseless claim in the newsletter, CLEAR, the company that we as a collective board voted to approve during consent of a public meeting, that company conducted an equity audit. Please hear me loud and clear when I tell you that the organization has completed their services. The contract date which can be found on the public February 3rd agenda was from February 8th through June 30th. By my calendar that period has ended. I’ve never expressed verbally or even in written communication any intent to rehire the organization. And once again I do not have the unilateral authority to make this decision. Telling the public otherwise is deceiving and it perpetuates another falsehood from this anonymous group. In addition to assassinating my character, it’s also been stated that I’m trying to suppress public speaking.

Once again we get a reflection of her personal viewpoint. There is nothing in the newsletter that alludes to character assassination. What is at issue is Fenton’s leadership on the board, but it is Fenton who is choosing to make it about herself.

In a harassing email I received this week someone actually wrote, “what kind of person infant suffering are you that you can’t accept real communication from parents”. In another message I was told “is it worth having your family hated”. As I always mention during public comments all viewpoints are welcome. MBUSD board doesn’t operate the same way as city council does. We do have by laws and procedure that allows for members of the public to share their opinions and views. For those who raise concerns about our process we follow the Brown Act and consult with attorneys regularly. I did not make this plan. I did not create the policy. I also don’t arbitrarily decide who can speak or censor anyone. If you actually showed up to our meetings, rather than hiding behind a newsletter with no name you would experience how MBUSB handles public comments.

We can see that what Fenton most resents is the choice of parents to retain their anonymity. With the rage behind this rant, can you blame them? By targeting the group with a cease and desist letter, accusing them of making “egregiously false and defamatory statements” and threatening legal action, it’s clear that Fenton and the rest of the MBUSD Board do not want dialogue or goodwill; they want control.

When you arrive at the district office you’re given a comment card to fill out. You fill it out, you turn it in. I follow that order. And when the timeframe for public comments has run, we move on. Remember the purpose of our meeting is to conduct more business in the public. But we will always provide the community with an opportunity to share their views. That will never change. The zoom information that many have referred to as well, that’s for those who refuse to wear a mask and still wish to give a live public comment. We provide you with a forum so your voice can be heard, even if you refuse to follow public health orders. The kiosk with the computer and the zoom already hooked into this meeting is made available outside the district office. There is no link that I am holding onto or suppressing from you. I’m a lawyer by trade and I wholeheartedly believe in the right to free speech. Your access to this board is unlimited and we can disagree, but when you as a nameless and faceless group disseminate lies, slander, defame, even bully someone, you have gone too far.

Once again, she is using terms that do not equate with what was written in the newsletter. Expressing opinions and writing letters to show solidarity and agreement that certain matters need to be addressed do not fall under the category of slander or bullying. Sending a cease and desist letter definitely falls under the latter.

My face, along with these board members, has been plastered on a poster board and boom in town. I have received emails telling me I’m stupid, I should be ashamed of myself, and I’m incompetent. And now there’s a newsletter from We the Parents MB that’s one hundred percent false, trying to destroy my reputation, that’s not ok.

Fenton is conflating other attacks with the WeTheParents newsletter, which is grossly unfair, and frankly, unprofessional. As a Board President in a small community, she’s a public face and she holds a public role. Just like any elected official, you should expect public challenge, push back, and accountability. Apparently, this is not what Fenton signed up for, and she is pissed that she has to deal with it.

I love Manhattan Beach, but I have never seen some members of this community stoop to this level. If you have the courage to pick up the phone and call me or email me directly, then do so. I answer every message that has a name assigned to it. I am one of five. A majority is how we conduct our business. And for those who are watching and just tuning in, please know that most of the community supports this board. And it’s truly sad to see how these anonymous individuals are trying to muddy the waters here. We have an incredible community and I’m proud to represent. Okay I am now going to compose myself and conduct and do the job that I was elected to.

Fenton’s last words were proven disingenuous because it was around the same time this epic screed occurred that WeTheParents received their first cease and desist letter. Since the group only maintains an email address (no website, as the cease and desist letter incorrectly references), the letter was sent by a legal assistant to the email supplied on the newsletter. The message: muddying the waters is not allowed in Manhattan Beach, and Fenton will do what she can to prevent it from happening. Enter Fagan Friedman & Fulfrost LLP.

It was only after the October 21 publication of RedState’s exclusive on the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board with interviews from the faces of WeTheParents: Lauren Harger, Pamela Davidson, and Fred Taylor, that Fenton and the MBUSD Board had names to attach to WeTheParents. Obviously, Fenton wasted no time in targeting the three individuals who were brave enough to step up and represent themselves and the other parents in the group.

On November 9, similar cease and desist letters from Fagan-Friedman LLP were sent to Harger, Davidson, and Taylor at their homes.

Cease and Desist Letter from Fagan Friedman & Fulfrost
Cease and Desist Letter from Fagan Friedman & Fulfrost
Cease and Desist Letter from Fagan Friedman & Fulfrost

The letters are nearly identical, allege the same defamation claims, and threaten action if they do not stop their “attacks” on Jennifer Fenton and issue an apology. One paragraph was changed from the first “general” letter sent to WeTheParents at their email address, and our RedState exclusive was referenced in the text and the footnote of the individual letters:

According to a recent RedState article, October 21, 2021, you and two other community members, “have chosen to be the faces of WeTheParentsMB.” 1 While we do not impute the statements by, or conduct of, WeTheParentsMB to you individually, we hope, as one of the apparent leaders of WeTheParentsMB, you can take the necessary and appropriate steps to ensure WeTheParentsMB ceases and desists from engaging in further acts of defamation against Ms. Fenton.

This is nothing more than taxpayer dollars being used to intimidate and threaten people Fenton disagrees with and who have the courage to stand up to her. It is apparent that Board President Jen Fenton is hiding behind the school district’s law firm in order to quash MSUSBD parents’ rights to speak freely as Harger, Taylor, Davidson, and WeTheParents fully recognize. In a statement to RedState, they said:

“It was after the RedState articles came out that Fenton finally had three names to attach to our heretofore anonymous group, and she wasted no time in hunting us down and sicc’ing her lawyers on us urging a retraction and an apology.”

Here’s the problem: Fagan-Friedman LLP has no legal basis for a case, and they know it – or, they should, since this area of law is pretty cut-and-dried. Fenton is an elected local official, which in limited part takes her out of the realm of a private citizen. As an elected official and the vocal face of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board, her ability to claim defamation is greatly limited, and her actions regarding the school district are subject to scrutiny and criticism.

Should Fagan-Friedman LLP choose to move forward in this fool’s errand in order to protect Fenton, the case would be subject to California’s antiSLAPP statute, as IP Law 360 explains:

California’s antiSLAPP statute “allows a court to strike any cause of action that arises from the defendant’s exercise of his or her constitutionally protected right of free speech or petition for redress of grievances.” (Flatley v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299, 311­312.) Two of the four categories of activities protected by the anti­SLAPP law “require a specific showing” that the challenged cause of action “concerns a matter of public interest.”

What’s more, the statute gives wide latitude on what is considered “matters of public interest” (emphasis added):

Some California Courts of Appeal, following the Legislature’s statutory directive to construe the anti­SLAPP statute broadly, have concluded “that ‘an issue of public interest’ … is any issue in which the public is interested. In other words, the issue need not be ‘significant’ to be protected by the anti­SLAPP statute — it is enough that it is one in which the public takes an interest.” (Nygård, Inc. v. Uusi­Kerttula (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1027, 1039­1042.) Under this broad standard, courts have said that whether an issue is of public interest “can be ‘evidenced by media coverage’” (Sipple v. Foundation for Nat. Progress (1999) 71 Cal.App.4th 226, 238­239), as well as by whether members of the public have posted commentary about the topic in question on the internet (Chaker v. Mateo (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 1138, 1146­1147). Courts adhering to such a broad interpretation of the anti­SLAPP statute have concluded that a diverse range of issues satisfy the “public interest” standard.

So, WeTheParents are perfectly within their legal and Constitutional rights to speak up about their concerns about the public interest of the school board which dictates the education of their children, and to organize and rally other parents to do the same. What Fenton, under the auspices of Fagan-Friedman LLP, is attempting to do is the worst form of bullying.

Once again, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board is competing with the Loudon County School Board in VA, and other school boards across the nation on the most creative ways to silence parents’ voices.

Perhaps the National Association of School Boards is running some secret contest with prizes supplied by the Department of Justice.

As my colleagues have documented, parents and parents’ groups in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Southern Arizona, Scottsdale, and Nevada are under legal and personal attacks for simply demanding their school boards hear their voices, and address their concerns about the educational direction of their school districts, and what their children should, and should not be learning.

WeTheParents are unbowed and plan to continue their pursuit to hold the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board accountable in spite of Fenton’s attempts at coercion and chilling free speech, aided by Fagan Friedman & Fulfrost LLP. They tell RedState:

“We consider it par for the course when dealing with imperious elected officials. Jen is particularly triggered, as evidenced by her rant at the school board meeting. This is just the sour cherry on top of that cake.

“It a bullying tactic, and an effort to silence parents and to portray themselves as victims. WeTheParents have no power besides our voices and our votes. We don’t have expensive attorneys and wordsmiths at our disposal, unlike Ms. Fenton, who enjoys the benefits of taxpayer-funded attorneys to do her dirty work. Irony.”

Fenton and her ilk may have considered themselves “WOKE,” before, but it’s a guarantee that they are fully awake now.