RIVERSIDE – 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. “We expect people from the community to be professional and remember that young people look up to them. The kids are impressionable. It takes a little more sensitivity when you’re addressing them.”
According to Paul, the lockout at Gage does not apply to other RUSD schools to which Zellerbach may be invited to speak.
Zellerbach told CNS he was “bothered and concerned” by reaction to his career day address, which he remembered as a generally positive experience for everyone.
“I’ve been doing YEMP for a little over 10 years at many middle schools throughout the Riverside area, and they keep contacting me to come back each and every year,” the D.A. said. “That in itself speaks volumes.”
Though he could not “reconstruct what specifically was said and in what context,” Zellerbach insisted that he stuck to the “subject matter that was provided to me” by the instructors on Dec. 17.
“There were eight to 10 different topics related to the legal process,” he said, adding that in trying to jazz up the dialogue, he did his best to “make it real and relate to the kids.”
“You can’t speak to them at a level you would speak with other attorneys,” he said. “There are a lot of things they’re not going to understand. I’ve got tons of nieces and nephews. I talk to kids all the time, both professionally and personally.”
Asked what might have prompted him to use questionable language, Zellerbach replied, “Well I don’t know. I don’t know what I said.”
“It’s difficult to respond, months later, whether something could be misunderstood or taken out of context,” he told CNS. “It was just so long ago.”
Reminded that the lecture occurred weeks — not months — earlier, he replied: “Well, look, in my life when you speak to as many groups as I do, day and night, that’s quite a while ago.”
Zellerbach said one of his objectives was to convey “the difficulties of what we do as prosecutors and the types of situations we deal with on a regular basis.”
He recalled students asking “a lot of follow-up questions” and acknowledged that he could have let slip one or more of the off-color terms associated with his lecture.
“It’s a possibility. That’s the best that I can give you,” the D.A. said. “If you watch TV shows, movies, mass media, what’s on the Internet — it’s certainly tremendously or potentially more offensive than anything I ever said in my presentation. Kids are exposed to a lot of offensive stuff. And that’s unfortunate.”
Zellerbach said that if he offended a student or parent, he would be “more than willing to personally apologize” to them.
“I’ve been doing this a great number of years, and this is the first time this issue has come up,” he said.
Public relations veteran Steve Allen, who runs offices in Los Angeles and New York, told CNS the Gage episode accentuates why elected officials must remember “the spotlight is always on them.”
“That means you’ve got to be even more accountable,” Allen said. “You’re a human being. You can make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable. But tell the truth. Don’t think you’re too big to admit making a mistake. Vow to handle things differently next time. It’s about character.”