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East County School District Cuts Ties With Online Learning Provider Over Racist, Sexually Suggestive Content

The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District main office. Aug. 27, 2020

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District main office. Aug. 27, 2020

Just days before the start of the first new school year during the pandemic, administrators at the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District scrambled to terminate the district’s contract with the company providing its online learning platform following reports that lessons had included racist and sexually suggestive content.

Parents were informed Wednesday, one day before the first day of school, that the district would be cutting ties with the Kansas City-based Acellus after administrators read reports from other districts regarding the inappropriate material in the virtual curriculum.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

Deann Ragsdale, the assistant superintendent of education services at La Mesa-Spring Valley, said she asked representatives from Acellus about these reports and was not satisfied by the company’s response.

“They confirmed that some of the offensive content had existed in the program and they assured us it had been removed,” she said. “However, we did not feel that they recognized the severity of the issue, nor did we feel they would be able to prevent this from happening again.”

According to the news outlet Civil Beat, parents in Hawaii posted the inappropriate content on social media. One Acellus video shows an animated bear and duck asking their classmate how she got the name “Sweetie Lips.” The classmate, a female pig, replies “Don’t ask, we’re not even going there.”

RELATED: Schools Remain Cautious Even As San Diego Moves Off State’s COVID-19 Monitoring List

Reported by Joe Hong , Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

In one lesson, students are asked, “Osama Bin Laden was the leader of what terrorist group?” One of the multiple-choice responses is “Towelban.” Another question portrays abolitionist Harriet Tubman as a criminal.

In the weeks before the start of school, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District distributed a video tutorial instructing parents how to navigate the Acellus platform.

Ragsdale said the district included Acellus only as a “supplemental component, not the foundational component,” of its distance learning curriculum. She said the curriculum was recommended to the district by the San Diego County Office of Education.

Music Watson, chief spokeswoman for the county Office of Education, clarified that the office did not officially endorse Acellus. Watson said one county employee recommended Acellus to the district based on previous experience with the platform.

“We had one employee who recommended this based on personal experience. She won’t be doing that anymore,” Watson said. “We’re working internally to clarify and make sure that all of our employees are familiar with our process for vetting different technology systems.”

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Acellus’s founder Roger Billings did not respond to requests for comment. His personal website claims that he invented the first hydrogen vehicles when he was in high school. He also claims to have built one of the first personal computers.

Jennifer Grivetto, a parent at La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, agreed with the decision to terminate the contract with Acellus, but said it was “completely unacceptable” that it happened just before the start of the school year.

“The termination of the contract sounds as if it was completely appropriate regarding the discovery of the material being utilized,” she said. “The district and teachers should already have had an understanding of the material offered and training should have happened much sooner than the week before school.”

The Spring Valley-La Mesa Teachers Association did not respond to requests for comment. Grivetto, however, expressed sympathy for the district’s educators.

“I do feel very sad for the teachers having to scramble as we know how much the teachers care for the students and families while having their own lives to cope with in this COVID environment,” she said. “We will do our best to be understanding and roll with this change.”

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Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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