How L.A.’s Brentwood School Became a Battleground in the Culture Wars

A shift to a progressive curriculum has parents, faculty, and students at the elite private school locked in a furious ideological struggle that’s tearing the campus apart
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Early last June, Brentwood School posted an image of a black square on Instagram. This was eight days after George Floyd had been killed, and it was part of #BlackoutTuesday, a social media campaign against racism and inequality. Other Los Angeles prep schools also participated in the well-intentioned if largely symbolic online gesture, along with millions of other institutions, businesses, and individuals. But Brentwood’s black box got what’s known as ratioed; it received more negative comments than likes. Many more.

“Brentwood is a toxic racist cesspool for students of color, but an ivory tower for the wealthy, white elite,” read one of the scores of scathing remarks that kept popping up on Instagram throughout the day. “If you cared about racial justice, you would close your doors and redistribute your obscene wealth,” read another.

In the year since Floyd’s murder, the atmosphere at this bucolic, super-exclusive, $38,000- to $45,000-a-year private school has only grown more poisonous, with some Brentwood alumni of color not only hurling accusations of racism but also demanding that the school completely scrap what they see as a biased curriculum. Meanwhile, parents, teachers, and administrators spent much of last summer and fall wrestling over the value of books like To Kill a Mockingbird—a civil rights classic to some; an outdated, problematic text to others—in what’s shaping up to be an epic battle over the hearts and minds of the children of America’s one percent.

To be sure, scenes like this are not occurring only at Brentwood. Similar skirmishes are breaking out at elite prep schools all over—at Harvard-Westlake, Marlborough, and Archer School for Girls in L.A. and in New York at Chapin and Dalton—making headlines across the country in publications as ideologically divergent as the New York Post and The Atlantic. But it’s worth focusing on what’s going on at this particular school off West Sunset. Because it’s here at Brentwood that all the forces arrayed in this conflict—woke alumni who want to tear the system down; teachers who’ve had a hard enough time getting through the year on Zoom, let alone dealing with paradigm shifts in educational priorities; and angry, frustrated moms and dads who just want their kids to get into good colleges—are most dramatically and publicly clashing, like those stranded boys battling each other on a deserted island in Lord of the Flies, one of the novels Brentwood struck from reading lists last year.

More to the point, there’s arguably no other school that’s faced more daunting challenges in coping with all this discord. Somehow, despite its best efforts, Brentwood has managed to offend all sides of the debate, infuriating both the forces of wokedom, who claim to have been frozen out of the school’s anti-racism curriculum changes, and the battalions of parents who don’t understand why their kids aren’t reading Harper Lee (or Arthur Miller or William Golding) in class anymore. As one exasperated parent tells Los Angeles, “George Floyd dies, our kids show up for school two months later, and every book that’s been read for the last 20 years is out.”

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Part of the reason the black-square post proved so controversial was its painfully ironic historical context. Until very recently, Brentwood, like most prep schools, 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 schools lecturing about equity and justice is like listening to Swiss bankers and asset managers lecturing the world about tax transparency.”

In fact, Brentwood was founded—in 1972, on property that was once a military academy—just as affluent white kids were fleeing L.A’.s public schools amid court-ordered desegregation. In those days, the place wasn’t nearly as fancy as it is now. “It was just a bootstrap operation with no money, no facilities, struggling to pay its teachers,” says an alum. “Very traditional and very backwards,” is how a former L.A. prep school teacher describes it.

There had been talks of modernizing Brentwood in the past. A 1997 accrediting committee dinged the school for its “traditional” approach, and a teacher recalls that discussions with superiors to open up the curriculum were “fairly dead-ended.” But at that time, there was little incentive for the school to change. As it expanded, money began pouring in. A gymnasium and performing arts complex went up in the 1980s. A second campus for lower grades was opened in the 1990s. By 2000, Brentwood reported an annual revenue of $18 million. By 2010, that figure was closer to $36 million. Reputationally, the school still lagged behind Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough, whose roots went back to the turn of the century or earlier. But it was definitely in the game, 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 school with a strong donor base,” says one longtime insider. Real Estate mogul Rick Caruso and Arnold Schwarzenegger both sent their kids there. Calista Flockhart sat on the school’s board.

Fittingly, when change finally did arrive at Brentwood, it came in the form of a TV personality. Before he’d been hired to head of school in 2011, Mike Riera, 65, had been hosting a talk show on the Oxygen network and appearing as a parenting correspondent on CBS’s Saturday Early Show. The author of several books on raising teenagers, Riera, who holds a PhD in psychology, was in many ways uniquely qualified for the job. And the culture at Brentwood did shift dramatically once the genial academic took over. Under his leadership, the number of students of color increased to 41 percent. (The school declined to provide a detailed breakdown of that figure. A faculty member claims that it includes Middle Easterners, a group the U.S. Census Bureau classifies as white.) Donations to the school almost doubled early in his tenure and remained consistent for years after. Among other initiatives, he announced a new, far-reaching 30-year plan that included the construction of a sprawling 70,000-square-foot middle school structure. The new building opened its doors (after gridlocking the neighborhood for years) in 2019.

Until recently, Brentwood had prided itself on its exclusivity, not inclusivity.

But like any headmaster, Riera has his detractors. Some involved with the school criticize him for what they see as his intellectual intolerance and for fostering a stifling political correctness on campus. One former trustee goes so far as to describe Riera’s reign as “a leftist, progressive, social-engineering remaking of school culture,” with school-sanctioned events like the annual Diversity Day and social-justice-focused assemblies, publications, and curriculum updates. Some students have had complaints about Riera, as well. In 2016, more than a dozen of them wrote articles for a campus political magazine complaining about “the deepening intellectual totalitarianism of the PC thought police that is metastasizing throughout the country and at this very school.” They claimed conservative students were silenced and labeled racists. When Brentwood allegedly refused to let the students publish the magazine, they printed and distributed copies themselves.

Over the last ten years, Riera has faced other challenges, among them a 45-year-old Brentwood female chemistry teacher arrested in 2017 for having sex with a 16-year-old student (she’s currently serving a three-year sentence). And after a 2016 video circulated online showing white students on a boat rapping along to a song that contained the N-word, outraged community members denounced the school for not doing enough to educate against racism. Major League Baseball legend Barry Bonds, a school parent, posted his disgust on Facebook: “This is what 40K a year gets African American students at Brentwood.” Nothing Riera had dealt with in the past, though, could have prepared him for the day of the black square. After that posting, and all the pent-up frustration and hostility it unleashed, nothing at Brentwood would be the same again.

On June 4, 2020, two days after the black-square debacle, a group of outraged alumni responded with a campaign on Instagram. “The time has come to call out and hold Brentwood School accountable for its past wrongdoings against Black and minority students,” the alumni announced from an account they named NoBlackoutBrentwood. Within days, the group issued 11 demands to their former school, including a seat on the board of trustees, increased Black and Latino staff, and “the expansion of curriculum to include diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.” A petition listing the demands accumulated nearly 5,000 signatures (although not all of them from Brentwood alumni). It was joined on June 19—Juneteenth—when Brentwood’s Black Family Association, a school-sanctioned affinity group, released its own demands. These parents urged the school to hire a consultant to “audit . . . course descriptions, books, and projects” for signs of racial insensitivity. They also called for anti-racism education for all parents. Their petition quickly collected more than 3,500 signatures.

Riera clearly got the message. “With the murder of George Floyd, that put everything on the front page,” he told Los Angeles during a 20-minute Zoom interview from his Brentwood office in February. “We had to look hard at ourselves and say, ‘We can do better.’ We need to really have a curriculum that is explicitly more inclusive, that has more voices, that has different representation in race and gender and sexuality.” Riera approached his faculty with his new marching orders. “We need to shift the curriculum,” he says he told them. “I’m challenging you to do some work this summer and see how you can change this.” Not all teachers agreed. Some wondered if changes were necessary; others wanted changes but felt rushed to make them; still others believed change was long overdue.

While those internal conversations were underway, NoBlackoutBrentwood ramped up the pressure by posting testimonies on Instagram from Brentwood alumni of color, who spoke about feeling tokenized and alienated at the school. “Behind their carefully manicured facade,” a 2018 graduate wrote, “Brentwood School is an incredibly racist organization from top to bottom.” The postings echoed a larger reckoning across the entire prep-school world. A Chapin School alum began posting about racism at that school from the Instagram account [email protected].

Dozens more “[email protected]” accounts appeared, including one for Harvard-Westlake that called out the school for having “fostered bigotry for the entirety of its existence.” Janine Hancock Jones, Harvard-Westlake’s director of diversity, responded on a podcast, “We are not the same institution—we’re not even the same country—that we were 100 years ago. We’re not the same country that we were 20 years ago . . . six months ago.”

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

Getty Images

In mid-June, Brentwood’s board agreed to meet over Zoom with NoBlackoutBrentwood alumni. The trustees initially seemed open to giving them what they wanted. “All our demands were supposedly going to be met,” says Halle Ihenacho, a 2016 graduate who is active with NBB. Another member, Natalie Gomez, recalls, “A lot of the feedback was, ‘This seems very, very doable.’”

But as summer went on and the talks became biweekly, the tone shifted sharply. According to the NBB alumni, board members who once seemed amenable to their input were now raising their voices. “We had people that were turning their cameras off,” Ihenacho says. “We had administrators yell at Black parents.”

Riera, who sits on the school’s board—along with former Honest Company CEO Brian Lee and Lance Milken, son of the Trump-pardoned financier Michael Milken, and around two dozen others—acknowledges there were problems. “The talks were hard,” he says. “I’m not going to pull any punches about that.”

As the discussions stumbled, the NBB alumni grew increasingly angry and upset. “We spent a whole summer playing cat and mouse with the administration,” Ihenacho says. “It was very scary to see how serious and how committed the administration was to just maintaining the status quo.”

Other NBB alumni—many of who had gone from Brentwood to attend college amid the safe-space debates that all but defined university life during much of the Obama era—felt abused. NBB member Luz Perez describes the calls as “pretty triggering and hostile.” So when Brentwood announced an anti-racism task force in June, the group wasn’t impressed. Members felt the school had acted without them.

Talks between NBB and Brentwood completely broke down in August, just as Harvard-Westlake unveiled its own brand-new, 20-page anti-racism plan. “The current national reckoning with systemic racism and injustice has led our community to its own self-examination,” the document said, alongside photos of the manicured campus. From now on, Harvard-Westlake would “make anti-racism an essential
element of our curriculum and culture.” (One Harvard-Westlake administrator complained to friends at the time that putting the document together made dealing with the pandemic look easy.)

Meanwhile, Brentwood parents were growing concerned about changes at the campus over the summer. Some were offended when Riera “strongly” encouraged them to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism and by his constant stream of anti-racism email updates. Parents said they feared the school was transforming into something they hadn’t signed up for. Some alumni had felt the school wasn’t changing fast enough; now parents worried it was changing too much too fast.

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Kate Savage taught art at Brentwood for almost two decades before leaving in 2018. Brentwood’s dilemma, she says, “is trying to be all things to all people. It wants to cater to families that want a traditional prep-school education. But it also wants to be a school for a diverse population. And therein lies the struggle.”

Kremer/Johnson

By the time September rolled around and school reopened (virtually, at first), some of those fears seemed to be realized. All across L.A.’s Westside, moms and dads did spit takes when they saw their kids’ new reading lists. During the first week of classes, parents of Brentwood eighth graders were shocked to see To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and The Crucible missing from the course description for English 8. When they logged onto Zoom for a virtual open house, a few parents voiced their objections, while many more stewed in silence, fearing community backlash if they spoke out (the same reason every parent who talked to Los Angeles for this story requested their names not be printed). The teacher was said to have told the visiting parents, “If you want your children to read the classics, you should have them do it in their spare time. This is the curriculum.”

Even before George Floyd’s murder, Brentwood had been tinkering with its curriculum. The previous school year, tenth-grade British Literature had become Modes of Communication and now explored “what it means to represent self with respect to race, gender, religion, and class.” American Literature for eleventh graders—a course that previously taught authors like T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.D. Salinger—was turned into American Identity and Culture. The English department also added a new senior elective, “LAtinx—An Exploration of Identity in Los Angeles,” in which students “study graffiti murals, taco culture, tattoos…and other forms of cultural expression.”

But now, in September 2020, it was the parents’ turn to mobilize over social media. They started a WhatsApp message group to figure out how to fight the changes. Informally naming themselves Concerned Parents, the group drew about 40 participants. Their main complaint: while Brentwood had been talking with groups all summer about curriculum changes, they forgot to ask the opinion of the folks who were writing the tuition checks. But when they emailed or called the school, their complaints seemed to go nowhere. The administration’s response, according to one parent, was, “We know what we’re doing. You have given us the trust to educate your children. So it’s up to us to determine the curriculum.” Another parent summarizes the school’s reply as, “We are educators. We know what’s best for your children. You chose our school.”

Riera recalls the talks differently. “At the end of most of these conversations, people felt like, ‘OK, I understand it. I’m not sure that I agree with it. I’m going to give it some time. I trust many other aspects of the school. So we’re going to go with it.’” Even when they disagreed, Riera says, “I [felt] like I learned something. I hope they learned something.”

He tried to further explain the changes in a September newsletter. “We are at an inflection point as a school, a time when we must take a deep look at ourselves in terms of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism,” he wrote. “This could result in discomfort for some as well as choices that are questioned by others. However, as a school we are pushing forward.”

Those words didn’t do much to calm parents. In October, trustees received an anonymous letter condemning the changes. “We respectfully demand an open forum to discuss the seemingly deliberate radicalization of the present curriculum,” the letter said. “It is not acceptable to indoctrinate young children and young adults without any context. To do so borders on child abuse.” Around the same time, a petition by “a current Brentwood School family” appeared online with similar gripes. “We do not need to be teaching our children to be anti-racist by ONLY having literature about the African American experiences in America,” the petition said. At last count, it had 72 signatures.

“It is true that we probably have implemented more curricular changes across all divisions in this one year than any other year in Brentwood’s almost 50 years of existence,” Riera acknowledged in October, clearly feeling the heat. “Will we overstep in some areas? Possibly. Will we under-step in others? Possibly.” But Riera insists the school wasn’t trying to brainwash anybody. “Every time I hear or see that word ‘indoctrination,’ I cringe, because that’s not what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re trying to teach students how to think. We’re not telling them what to think.”

Kate Savage, who taught art at Brentwood for almost two decades before leaving in 2018, puts the school’s dilemma succinctly: “Brentwood is trying to be all things to all people,” she says. “It wants to cater to the families that want a traditional prep-school education so that they know their kid can go to Stanford, Yale, and Harvard. But they also want to be a school for a diverse population. And therein lies the struggle.”

One Saturday in mid-October, a member of the Concerned Parents group met with a member of the Black Family Association at a bar in Culver City to see if some sort of détente could be reached. It did not go well.

The BFA parent, Kevin Monroe, brought a printout of a PowerPoint presentation he made, which he’d also given to Riera. The slides called out To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies for using the N-word. One slide suggested that the books would lead Monroe’s son to think, “I must be inferior to other people because I was a slave once,” and that the N-word “must be OK to use.” Another slide said, “Peers should view my son” as “strong”; they should know that he “loves and respects women” and is a “leader,” not a “victim,” “rapist,” or “passive.” The implication was that removing these books would help foster the latter perception.

As the meeting went on, the two parents seemed to get nowhere. “What if people leave? What if they can’t get people to apply to Brentwood?” asked the Concerned Parent member. “We’ll be better off without them,” Monroe apparently replied, adding that changes were happening and it was time the other side moved on. The Concerned Parent member couldn’t shake the feeling that Monroe believed his side had won.

In some ways, his side had. Halfway through the school year, in December, Brentwood published its own diversity, equity, and inclusion brochure, which is almost as long as Harvard-Westlake’s. “Diversity is in the fabric of who we are,” the document solemnly began. In a press release the same month, the school announced it had hired a consultant to lead diversity efforts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those efforts went about as well as the meeting in the Culver City bar. The consultant got off to a rocky start when he organized his virtual dialogue sessions by racial, ethnic, and identity groups, setting up separate (but equal) conversations for “white faculty,” “Black faculty,” “white parents and families,” “Black parents and families,” and others. After the blowback that the categories amounted to segregation, the school added a note to the event web page saying, “You are welcome to join any conversation. None are exclusive.” But it was too late; the “segregated” discussion groups made headlines around the country.

In January, another anonymous letter from a parent complaining about the curriculum landed in trustees’ mailboxes, and word of it quickly spread through the school. “Our children should not be punished or re-educated like Khmer Rough [sic] captives or Uyghur Muslims in China,” it read. “We refuse to allow the mechanical and systematic dismantling of whole sections of education simply to pursue a point that may or may not be universally accepted, and may in fact be no more that a tautological hustle [sic].”

This time, Riera’s patience seemed at an end. He encouraged people to block the letter’s originating email address, claiming the sender had violated rules. “This continued defamation of the school, the board of trustees, and its employees is contrary to what every family agrees to when they sign their contract with the school,” Riera wrote. “You cannot dictate the school’s curriculum or its programs.”

The Concerned Parents found that pretty rich. To them, dictating the curriculum was precisely what the other side had done.

In any case, in March, the school sent another email making clear that its resolve to forge ahead with a new culture at Brentwood would not be derailed; Brentwood alerted parents that at least one day of school would be starting late so that faculty could spend a morning discussing chapters of White Fragility.

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Reza Shamji, a 2020 Brentwood graduate, spent his final days of school last year urging the administration to support Black Lives Matter. He questions the school’s recent practice of replacing classics like Lord of the Flies. Reading it seemed like a rite of passage, he says. “Even my dad remembers reading that book. That book was very important for me—that was the book.” Unifying Brentwood’s students and parents, Shamji adds, is “just one of those things that not a lot of books can do.”

Courtesy Reza Shamji

As the school year winds down, few in these camps seem particularly happy about Brentwood. Despite the changes that have been made, many members of NoBlackoutBrentwood aren’t satisfied. “They’ve made these changes, and they’ve cut us out,” says Ihenacho. “We should be credited for such changes because we are the ones that went in and did it.” Adds Gomez, “People like Doctor Mike Riera have to completely be radicalized. That’s what needs to change to transform a school like Brentwood.”

Parents, meanwhile, feel like the school has already been transformed beyond recognition. At least one parent plans to homeschool next year. Another will change schools. But many parents don’t see leaving as an option. Brentwood was tough to get into, and their children are happy there, they say. A lot of families fear that if they complain too much, the school could ask them to leave and that other places might refuse to admit their children.

Perhaps sensing parental discontent, the school lowered its annual fundraising goal from $4.2 million to $3.6 million.

“The morale at that school is the worst I’ve ever seen,” one faculty member says. The middle school director left last year for another school, and that person’s former deputy has announced he’s doing the same, continuing a recent exodus of unhappy employees.

Through it all, it’s the students who are caught in the middle. A few have shared their thoughts on the curriculum changes with the administration, but most are far too focused on schoolwork and other activities to join the battle.

“Every day, you’re doing homework, you’re studying, you’re working with friends, you’re working with teachers,” says Reza Shamji, who graduated from Brentwood last year. When a book is assigned in class, he says, “we just read what we’re given.”


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