A Riverside middle school has scratched District Attorney Paul Zellerbach off its list of future speakers after a presentation to students by the county's top prosecutor drew complaints over his use of profanity, which Zellerbach says he doesn't remember using.
"If it was felt by anyone that I said anything that was inappropriate or was out of line, I apologize," he told City News Service. "It was certainly not my intent or purpose to do that."
The brouhaha goes back to a Dec. 17 "career day" at Gage Middle School organized by representatives from the Youth Education Motivation Program, better known as YEMP.
The grant-funded program, handled by officials at the Riverside Community College District, seeks to bring speakers from a wide range of professions to Riverside County schools to encourage youths to further their education.
Two dozen "YEMPs" were held last fall, including the one at Gage. Program consultant Linnie Bailey told CNS she invited Zellerbach via email to speak to seventh- and eighth-graders at the school, as he had done in the past, and he accepted.
The D.A. appeared before 30-50 students for a 45-minute interactive lecture on the Constitution and courts, according to Gage instructor Robert Alvarez, who supervised the class along with another history teacher.
"He filled his time slot, every last minute, and that was great," Alvarez told CNS. "Everything was fine until the last 10 minutes. Then he used language that we as teachers wouldn't use. They were not very appropriate words. The kids were kind of like, 'Oh."'
Alvarez declined to repeat several of the words, though he confirmed "damn" made it into one statement.
"The words were nothing the kids haven't heard before. But we try to watch what we say in front of them," Alvarez said.
Eighth-graders Aryssa Flores and Marissa Roque recalled little about the D.A.'s lecture -- except how he punctuated it.
"He cussed," Aryssa told CNS.
"He used inappropriate words," Marissa added.
According to Marissa, she was only vaguely paying attention to the lecture until she heard Zellerbach say "bull----." She could not recall the context for the expletive.
"He also said something about his butt," the 14-year-old told CNS.
Aryssa said she heard the same reference, but believed it might have been "ass." Neither girl could explain how or why the word crept into the D.A.'s presentation.
According to Alvarez, school administrators were alerted to what occurred. And when students went home that afternoon, so were parents.
"I don't allow swearing in our home. It's hard enough trying to keep a kid's vocabulary clean these days," said Linda Rumsey, whose 14-year-old son, Jared, attends Gage.
"For this man, an established person in the community, to come in and talk like that -- I don't understand it," she said. "For this to happen is a shame. He needs a good lecture about how to act around children, especially carrying the title he carries."
Jennifer Romano, whose son, Brice, and daughter, Shelby, are students at Gage, said Zellerbach had a duty to be on his best behavior and set an example for the youths.
"This reflects badly on him as a public official," Romano said. "The kids can't respect someone who uses bad language. They can't feel comfortable around him."
The Riverside mom said she understood how a speaker who's "very passionate" about his subject might forget himself in the moment.
"But that's no excuse here," she told CNS. "He is a man with some education. Maybe the words weren't severe, but they were still curse words. It's one thing to do this in a social setting, around other adults. But not children. He shouldn't have used those words."
Neither Romano nor Rumsey blamed the school for the incident.
Within a day of Zellerbach's presentation, Gage Middle School Principal Keyisha Holmes received a complaint via email.
CNS obtained a copy of the message that Holmes sent in response, which reads in part: "I too am extremely disappointed with what (Mr. Zellerbach) shared with my students. I have taken up the matter with the (YEMP) coordinator, and he will not be back."
Holmes referred all inquiries to Riverside Unified School District spokeswoman Jacquie Paul, who confirmed that the district attorney had been removed from the school's list of prospective future speakers.
"He used profanity, and that was inappropriate for that age group," Paul said. --By Paul Young, City News Service