Skip to main content

‘Racially insensitive:’ SF school board member under fire over comments about ‘lack of family support’ for struggling students

Ann Hsu speaks at a pro merit based admission system for Lowell High School rally outside the San Francisco Unified School District building in San Francisco Calif., on Thursday, June 16, 2022. | Ben Fanjoy for The Standard

A San Francisco school board member is under fire for comments made about racially marginalized families, attributing their challenges to “unstable family environments.” 

Ann Hsu said in a candidate questionnaire to the San Francisco Parent Action Coalition shared over the weekend that a “lack of parental encouragement” was part of the cause for students being unable to focus on or care about school. 

“... Especially in the Black and brown community, I see one of the biggest challenges as being the lack of family support for those students,” Hsu wrote. “Unstable family environments caused by housing and food insecurity along with lack of parental encouragement to focus on learning cause children to not be able to focus on or value learning.”

When asked to comment, Hsu later directed The Standard to a Twitter thread in which she said she “misspoke.” Like the two other commissioners appointed to the school board by Mayor London Breed in the wake of the recall supported by all three, she is up for election in November. Some on Twitter called for Hsu to resign

“I believe that the institutional racism that is deeply embedded in our society harms students and their families,” Hsu wrote on Tuesday afternoon. “My statements reflected my own limited experiences and inherent biases. I made a mistake, and I am deeply sorry.”

However, Hsu’s apology wasn’t enough for Shamann Walton, the president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

“It is disheartening that someone in a position responsible for making decisions for 50,000 children lead with racism and stereotypical characterizations,” said Walton.

He urged Hsu to resign because he said her statements are “flat-out wrong and racist to perpetuate harmful stereotypes on Black and Brown students and their families.”

Hsu’s remark about marginalized students wasn’t the first time Yvette Edwards—a Black parent of two San Francisco Unified School District students—has heard that kind of explanation for disparities in student outcomes.

“The original response was upsetting, and it’s obviously very disappointing to hear that narrative again,” said Edwards, a Parent Action Coalition board member. “It was a racially insensitive remark. There’s no way around this. A lot of people don’t have time—it doesn’t mean we don’t care.”

Edwards said disparities in academic performance come down to disparities in funding for structural support, and even simple accommodations like conducting parent-teacher conferences over the phone to make it easier on families with little time to spare. Before Hsu issued an apology, Edwards told The Standard she hoped Hsu would clarify what she meant, and acknowledge the harm caused by her statement.

Hsu later revised the answer in the questionnaire to say: “Due to historical inequities, many students in marginalized communities face extra challenges that create obstacles to their learning. We must recognize the inequities and work to mitigate the harms that stem from them.”

During a discussion about the creation of a virtual school at a May committee meeting, Hsu also drew attention for comments about wanting her son, who enjoyed online learning, to interact with “riff raff,” a term used in the past to refer to disreputable people or people from a low social class.

Edwards said the remark made her “uncomfortable.”

Commissioner Ann Hsu speaks at a committee meeting on May 9, 2022. | The Standard

Meredith Dodson, executive director of the Parent Action Coalition, convened a meeting for Black families in their network on Monday, where they expressed hurt over the remarks. A meeting with the families and Hsu is scheduled for Wednesday.

“Right now we have a situation where there’s a current commissioner and candidate for November who has said some disappointing and hurtful things that’s impacting our community of families as well as the broad SFUSD community,” Dodson said. “We hope it’s a learning experience for Ann.”

Edwards also noted the need for larger, honest conversations around race in the district. 

In just the last few months, some parents and school leaders have lamented Black and Asian communities being pitted against one another without nuance when it came to the board’s decision to reinstate selective admissions at Lowell High School, and the case of a principal reassigned over the use of a racial slur

“It’s a whole different level,” Edwards said. “Yet no one seems to be able to have a truthful, engaged conversation without it turning it into … I call it the Mortal Kombat of the city. Everyone’s choosing their fighters instead of choosing the kids.”

The story is updated with new comments from Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton.

Han Li contributed additional reporting for this story.