Ethnic studies vote delayed until forum

TUSD meets for 4 hours amid big crowd, 100 police
2011-05-04T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T08:36:10Z Ethnic studies vote delayed until forumAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 04, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The TUSD Governing Board decided Tuesday night to delay making changes to the ethnic studies program until it holds a public forum on the controversial proposal.

Board President Mark Stegeman made the recommendation to hold off on the vote on his proposal to make some ethnic studies courses electives, capping a tumultuous four-hour meeting that included numerous interruptions, the removal of at least seven audience members and an armed police presence.

After the forum is held, Stegeman said he plans to bring the proposal back to the board. Details on when and where the forum will be were not announced.

In addition to the standing-room-only crowd inside TUSD headquarters, about 300 people who couldn't get into the meeting gathered outside. The crowd - raucous at times - listened to the proceedings over speakers.

While no vote was taken, it didn't appear as though any board members had changed their position on the proposal.

Adelita Grijalva and Judy Burns stood in opposition while Stegeman and Michael Hicks support the proposal. Miguel Cuevas, who is considered the swing vote, declined to take a stand but did say the proposal has merit and that it's possible he will support it.

TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone had urged the board earlier in the day to postpone the vote after hearing from a number of community groups. He hopes that the community forum will allow for a healthy dialogue.

The meeting moved at a slow pace as board members were often interrupted by audience members.

However, it came to a halt nearly two hours in when two members of the audience attempted to speak after the call-to-the-audience portion of the meeting ended. The women were asked repeatedly to leave before being escorted out by police in tactical gear.

The interruption resulted in a 15-minute recess. When the board reconvened and attempted to discuss the Mexican American Studies proposal, the interruptions continued and five more women were escorted out as a result.

Lupe Castillo, a longtime educator and community activist, was one of those escorted out.

"I wanted to say a few words. I wanted to read from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter From Birmingham,' " said Castillo, 69. "I'm horrified at the level of police presence."

She along with six others - all adults - were issued a citation for criminal trespass and ordered to appear in city court.

Police were on hand at the request of TUSD administration, which didn't want to take any chances after members of the student group Unidos stormed the dais, chained themselves to board members' chairs and forced the cancellation of last week's meeting when the issue was originally supposed to be discussed.

The proposed change to the ethnic studies courses applies to social studies courses offered by the Mexican American Studies department.

Both Burns and Grijalva argued that such a change would dismantle the program and that there would be no incentive for students to take the course, because it would mean doubling up on history courses when class schedules are already tight.

The proposal comes as the Tucson Unified School District waits for word from Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal on whether the Mexican American Studies program is in compliance with state law.

Though many called Stegeman's proposal a concession to the state superintendent, he said that is not the case.

"There's been a sense in the district that the Mexican American Studies program is flawless, and despite its positive qualities, this rhetoric doesn't serve the district well," Stegeman said. "Almost all of our programs have some room for improvement."

He went on to say that some of the courses may not give adequate coverage to core topics, just as traditional classes may not provide adequate coverage of alternative viewpoints.

His solution is to strengthen the traditional classes by adding a significant component that focuses on the contributions and viewpoints of Mexican Americans and other ethnic minorities.

Stegeman believes doing so will not only allow the content to reach more students, but also will put the district in a stronger position when it comes to the state investigation.

Grijalva disagreed, saying: "We're in a position to let the state know this is a program we're willing to fight for. The reason we're being targeted is because this state is purposely writing legislation that attacks a people based on the color of their skin - we can't lose sight of that. It's naive of us to think that by passing this resolution that it will take away the state attention."

Outside TUSD headquarters, a large crowd gathered while the meeting progressed. People chanted, waved signs, cheered and jeered through the evening. Some members of Unidos even held their own mock board meeting.

Among other things, supporters of ethnic studies wants the board to reject the proposal and expand the program.

"When prisons are growing and growing and schools are closing and closing, it affects everybody," said Ryan Velasquez, a senior at City High School.

Mayra Feliciano, a senior at Rincon High, told the crowd she is in an ethnic studies government class.

"These classes have had such an impact on me," she said. "I see the world through a critical lens now."

Tucson police had about 100 officers on site, said Assistant Chief Brett Klein.

He said no officers were there on overtime. The officers were pulled from various units to provide security. A police helicopter flew overhead during the evening and a dog unit was also present.

Police Lt. Fabian Pacheco said officers were on hand to ensure everyone's safety.

"We are here to preserve the peace," he said before the meeting started. "They can exercise their constitutional rights, but we will not tolerate criminal activity."

No serious incidents were reported.

Shortly before the meeting started, Superintendent Pedicone walked outside among the gathering crowd.

Activist and one-time TUSD board candidate Miguel Ortega shouted, "Shame on you, Dr. Pedicone." Moments later he yelled out, "Vote the right way" to board member Miguel Cuevas.

Star reporters Carmen Duarte, Marisa Gerber and Ernesto Portillo Jr. contributed to this story.

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