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Ethnic studies vote delayed after raucous demonstration

Demonstators, media removed from TUSD board meeting

The board of Tucson's largest school district postponed a vote on changes to ethnic studies after police in riot gear cleared activists and media from a public meeting Tuesday night.

An estimated 300 protesters who were not allowed into the building responded by linking arms and cordoning off the entrances to the Tucson Unified School District headquarters while chanting, "Our education is under attack. Fight back!"

Chants, folk songs, and catcalls filled the air, as students and activists surrounded the building on three sides.

A police helicopter flew overhead, and officers blocked streets near TUSD headquarters with their cars, lights flashing.

During the heated four-hour meeting, some audience members became disruptive and were escorted out by Tucson police at the request of the Governing Board, said Sgt. Matt Ronstadt, a spokesman for the department.

Seven people refused to leave the meeting when asked, and were arrested for 3rd degree criminal trespassing, Ronstadt said.

"It was absolute mayhem" when police began removing people from the meeting, said Sean Arce, director of the Mexican American Studies program.

"It was very tense" throughout the meeting, Arce said. "Then police came to take people away."

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About 20 members of a police "riot squad" remained in the meeting room, he said.

Community organizer Miguel Ortega called the school board's response to activists and protesters an "absolutely unprecedented lack of restraint," as he called for the resignation of district Superintendent John Pedicone.

TUSD Governing Board President Mark Stegeman acknowledged the situation could have been handled better.

"We'll be learning to do this as we go along," Stegeman said during the meeting.

Vote delayed

The board put off a decision on whether to change the classification of some Mexican American Studies courses. Stegeman had proposed making some social studies classes in the program electives, rather than core courses that count toward graduation requirements.

Stegeman said he likely will bring the proposal forward again, after a public forum on the issue. Details on the timing of the forum were not announced.

In both a letter to the board and his remarks Tuesday, Pedicone, who has supported Stegeman's proposal, recommended the school board postpone voting on the issue.

"This has become a political issue and you know that it tears at the fabric of the district," the superintendent said.

While no vote was held on the issue, no board members seem to have changed their stance on reclassifying some MAS courses to electives.

Adelita Grijalva and Judy Burns oppose Stegeman's proposal, while Michael Hicks supports it. Miguel Cuevas hasn't made his decision on the issue public, but has said the proposal has merit.

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Grijalva and Burns say the change would effectively dismantle the program. Stegeman said all TUSD programs have room for improvement, and that he'd like to see traditional classes offer more coverage of Mexican Americans and other minorities.

Activists were confident that the reclassification won't take place.

"They blinked," said Richard Martinez, the attorney for a group of teachers suing over a state ban on ethnic studies courses. The board won't restructure ethnic studies in the face of strong community opposition, he said.

"This is a manufactured crisis," Martinez said. The move to end ethnic studies courses is driven by politicians from Phoenix, he said.

The MAS program is the subject of a review by the state, which claims it violates a new law that forbids classes aimed at a specific ethnic group. The MAS classes, along with African American, Native American, and Pan Asian studies courses, are part of a "unitary status" agreement that ended court supervision of TUSD's desegregation programs.

TUSD could lose 10 percent of its budget, about $15 million, if it is found to violate the law.

The decision to postpone the vote on the program was an effort for greater communication with the community, according to school board officials.

"This is not the way that you are going to reach out to the community," said Luci Messing, president of the Tucson Education Association, during the public call to the audience.

Messing was referring to the board's handling of an incident at least week's TUSD board meeting where student activists from the group UNIDOS chained themselves to chairs in the meeting room.

Last week's meeting was canceled because of the protest.

"I am not sure what to call that process, but it's not democracy," said Stegeman of the forced cancellation.

Heavy police presence

School officials maintain the approximately 100 police officers, supplemented by the district's own security force, were at the meeting to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Police with plastic handcuffs and school safety officials prevented many members of the public and the media from entering the building.

The meeting room seats about 150 audience members. District officials initially decided to hold the meeting at a larger venue, but then decided on TUSD headquarters, citing security concerns after last week's meeting was canceled.

Those allowed inside had to pass through metal detectors and bag searches. Water bottles were not allowed inside, and several audience members said they had to leave the meeting early because of the heat.

At one point, a Sentinel reporter saw a TPD officer changing a thermostat in the meeting room after it had been adjusted by TUSD board member Judy Burns.

Among those barred from entering were some journalists from TucsonSentinel.com, the Arizona Daily Star, National Public Radio and some local television stations.

A number of audience members were asked to leave when they attempted to speak after the call to the audience portion of the meeting was closed. They were forcefully escorted outside the building by police wearing riot helmets and bulletproof vests.

Some members of the media also were kicked out of the meeting, including KOLD cameraman Edgar Ybarra. Witnesses inside the meeting said Ybarra was filming the arrest of another audience member when he was forced out by police.

KVOA reporter Danielle Todesco and a KVOA cameraman also were pushed outside by police, but were later allowed to reenter the building.

Arrested for refusing to leave the meeting were 69-year-old Guadalupe Castillo, 35-year-old Caterina Sinclair, 21-year-old Wesley Narro-Castro, 32-year-old Brook Bernini, 19-year-old Amy Meller, 67-year-old Ann Yellott, and 33-year-old Maria Galup, TPD's Ronstadt said. All were cited and released, he said.

School board member Adelita Grijalva didn't approve of the meeting's setup.

"I am very disappointed in the way that we are having this meeting tonight," she said.

"It's pretty ridiculous," said 18-year-old Angelica Ornelas, saying money should be spent on education instead of on police officers monitoring a protest.

Ornelas has not taken any ethnic studies classes, but sees the benefit it's provided her classmates. "They want to go to class," she said, as she listened to the board meeting over loudspeakers set up outside TUSD headquarters, 1010 E. 10th St.

No police were on overtime at the meeting, said Assistant Chief Brett Klein. No serious incidents or injuries were reported, police said.

Outside demonstrators

A raucous crowd of about 300 demonstrated outside throughout the meeting.

Demonstrators organized their movements by communicating via text messages. Separate contingents of protesters chanted in front of the main entrance, while others blocked both ends of an alley behind the building.

While some chanted through the distortion of bullhorns, others quietly sang protest songs.

Some demonstrators formed a human chain in an attempt to block police from taking those arrested from the TUSD headquarters grounds, while others lay in the roadway in the path of a police van.

Students from UNIDOS conducted a mock school board meeting of their own.

People kept from entering the meeting were able to hear portions of the proceedings via loudspeakers placed on a balcony.

The speakers worked only intermittently and school board members, and other officials, did not always speak clearly into the microphone, making it difficult for those outside to follow the proceedings. Problems with the speaker system led to at least one recess in the meeting.

At one point, school officials read a stream of statistics from Power Point slides during a presentation on the impact of ethnic studies programs in the district. Grijalva pointed out the statistics may have a negative effect and questioned why the report was even made in the first place.

"This right here pits our minority communities against each other," she said. "We are at a time where we are supposed to be bringing our community together. This kind of analysis rips us apart."

According to school officials, an estimated 60.5 percent of the student population is Hispanic, 5.7 percent is African American, 3.9 percent is Native American and 2.5 percent Asian. The remaining 25 percent are white.

Members of the school board who want to reclassify Mexican American Studies are missing the point, said Norman Geane Higuera, a teacher at Challenger Middle School.

The University of Arizona offers degrees in Mexican American studies, Native American studies, African American literature and African American studies. If anything TUSD students should receive advanced placement credits, she said. Cutting MAS courses will be another bullet in a long line of bullets that undermines the history of the Southwest, Higuera said.

"I can honestly say that I owe it all to (ethnic studies)," said Camiliano Juarez, a graduate student at UA's College of Architecture. Before taking ethnic studies classes he said he was a mediocre student, but the program got him motivated.

The issue is all about local control, Juarez said, citing the move by Attorney General Tom Horne—the former state Superintendent of Public Instruction—to ban ethnic studies classes.

Ryan Kelly and Maggie Golston contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Dylan Smith’s wife is a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District.


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Kevin Asher/TucsonSentinel.com

Tucson police guard the main entrance to TUSD headquarters during a school board meeting Tuesday.