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A Film on School Board Fracas by One Who's Close to Subject

Orange County

Documentary on Westminster's war over gender, bias and religion is being made by the sympathetic son of a criticized trustee.

April 27, 2004|Kevin Pang | Times Staff Writer

In Westminster, where a divided school board has incensed residents over the role of religious beliefs in public policy, a budding filmmaker has a unique perspective on the acrimony.

Mark Ahrens, a 19-year-old student at USC, has been recording recent school board meetings with his $2,500 video camera.

For several weeks, a three-member majority in Westminster had refused to adopt a required state antidiscrimination policy that allows students and teachers to define their gender regardless of their biological sex. Ahrens has been there to record every boo, clap, insult and bravo. He wants to turn the footage into a documentary.

If his name sounds familiar, it's because Mark is the son of Judy Ahrens, one of the Westminster School District trustees at the center of the dispute.

His project began on a whim, an antidote to homework. He arrived five minutes before the start of the April 1 school board meeting, for which nearly 1,000 people packed into a stuffy middle school gymnasium.

"I was filming it for records' sake, but then I saw all these people getting angry outside and I thought there was some drama," he said.

The meeting centered on the wording of a law meant to protect students and staff from discrimination.

At the meeting, speaker after speaker castigated the three trustees -- Ahrens, Helena Rutkowski and Blossie Marquez-Woodcock -- who make up a majority on the five-member board and who refused to adopt the state language because it offended their Christian beliefs. They said the state policy could lead to promotion of a transsexual agenda in the classroom, cross-dressing on campus and boys and girls mixing in school bathrooms.

The speakers said basing the decision on religious views was grossly improper and noted that it put state funding for the cash-strapped district in jeopardy. A handful of supporters applauded the three for sticking to their beliefs.

On April 19, California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell grudgingly agreed to the board's revised definition in the antidiscrimination policy, which among other provisions, makes clear that the "perception of the alleged victim is not relevant to the determination of 'gender.' "

"It's hard on my mom," Mark Ahrens said. "It hurts because the public has misunderstood her motives."

He has recorded five hours of footage so far. There's no timeline for when the documentary will be completed, but in a 10-step process, Ahrens estimates that the film is at Step Four

"I'm proud to see him use his talents," Judy Ahrens said. "I'm glad he is interested in California education and hope his documentary will make viewers more astute to their local school district issues."

Though his mother is a principal subject, Ahrens says he hopes to keep the film fair and balanced. James Reed, president of the school board and one of the two trustees who wanted to the district to follow the state policy, has agreed to an on-camera interview.

"I'm going to try to show everything I've witnessed," Mark Ahrens said. "I have on tape a lot more negatives than positives, so how can I be biased?"

But attempts at neutrality are not without trial and error.

At the April 1 meeting, Ahrens approached several transgender speakers who addressed the trustees but was denied interviews. He had forgotten to remove a sticker on his shirt: "I Support the Board."

Judy Ahrens said that though her son has unfettered access to both sides, "it will be very challenging for him to be unbiased because he respects my perseverance to stand for the sake of the kids."

Mark Ahrens, whose conservative political leanings mirror his mother's, attended Concordia University in Irvine for three semesters because "my mom was worried about liberal professors implanting their philosophies in their teachings."

Now a sophomore at USC, Ahrens hopes to be accepted by its School of Cinema-Television and eventually produce Hollywood blockbusters.

"When I ask questions in class, I go to him," said USC professor Drew Casper, who teaches Ahrens' film studies class. "He's a very bright student, sits in the front row and [is] very attentive to the film."

Ahrens would like to see his documentary shown on television. Already, he is brainstorming for a title.

With "The Passion of the Christ" playing in theaters, a neighbor suggested "The Passion of Judy Ahrens" or "The Passion of the Three." But Ahrens didn't like the religious connotation. He is considering "Kangaroo Court."

More important, Ahrens said, he would like to see a Hollywood ending. He said he will be there Thursday for a recall rally at Westminster Manor against his mother and Marquez-Woodcock. Rutkowski is not targeted because her term ends in November anyway.

"I'd like to see my mom and [Marquez-Woodcock] survive the recall," Ahrens said. "I'd also like to see other districts change their policy and update it to this one. I'd like to see a shock wave sent out."

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