TUSD canceled a meeting between the district and Tom Horne on Wednesday after district officials accused the state superintendent of public instruction of politicizing what was supposed to have been a private talk about its ethnic-studies program.
Horne's planned visit came less than 24 hours after Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation targeting ethnic studies.
Horne has been a longtime critic of the Tucson Unified School District's Raza Studies program, saying it promotes ethnic chauvinism. He has been open in saying that TUSD's program is the reason he has pushed for so many years to get this type of legislation passed.
Wednesday's meeting was initiated by Horne, according to the TUSD, even though Horne's office said Wednesday that TUSD had extended the invitation to meet at its headquarters, 1010 E. 10th St.
News of the meeting got out through social-networking sites, text messages and word of mouth, prompting more than 300 Tucson High Magnet and Wakefield Middle school students to walk out of class.
At TUSD's central office, students chanted various slogans including, "Education is not a crime." They linked arms and formed a human chain to prevent Horne from entering the building.
"That bill is nothing but lies, and it claims that our classes breed racial chauvinism," said Alfonso Chavez, a Tucson High senior. "We understand that we are missing one day of our education, but we are willing to do that to save our classes for the future."
Wakefield students were escorted by Mexican-American studies teacher Alexandro Escamilla, who said he went along to monitor the children.
One of those students was 12-year-old Erica Madrid, who said she wasn't sure what she doing at the protest and simply wanted to join her friends. Juan Yanez, an eighth-grader, had a stronger sense of what was going on and said his parents allowed him to attend only after he was able to identify the cause.
"I want to be able to learn about Mexican culture," he said. "It's wrong to take it away."
Acting Superintendent Maggie Shafer noted that the students had First Amendment rights, but she said they needed to be in class.
As a result of the protests, district officials canceled the meeting with Horne.
"I thought we were holding a meaningful dialogue about ethnic studies and the importance of the classes," Shafer said. "But it's turned into a political event, and we have no interest in that."
Horne, a Republican candidate for state attorney general, held a news conference at the State Building, 400 W. Congress St., despite the meeting cancellation. He rebutted the district's statement that his visit had been politicized, saying his only intention was to learn more about the other ethnic-studies programs offered at TUSD - African-American studies, Native American studies and Pan-Asian Studies. He said he felt he knew enough about Mexican-American studies and intends to go after TUSD when the legislation takes effect on Dec. 31.
If the district is found not to be in compliance, the Arizona Department of Education can withhold funding.
The new law concerns TUSD Governing Board member Mark Stegeman.
"I am concerned because the law is vague and allows the state superintendent to withhold millions of dollars from the district, based on his interpretation of those subjective provisions," Stegeman said.
Stegeman plans to propose to the district the creation of an independent temporary panel to review the ethnic-studies program and assess its compliance with the new law. The law says students "should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people."
It also makes it illegal for public schools to have any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government or promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
The law also bars any programs "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group."
TUSD officials who reviewed the legislation have said nothing they are doing in the program violates the new law.
The final decision on whether a school program violates the law is to be determined by the state Board of Education or the state school superintendent.
Horne said that because his term will be ending days later, it will be in the hands of the new superintendent to follow up.
One candidate for the job - Margaret Garcia Dugan, Horne's deputy superintendent - said she would be happy to do that if she's elected.
Horne's fight against TUSD's Raza Studies goes back to 2007, when activist Dolores Huerta spoke at Tucson High and told students that Republicans hate Latinos. Rather than put an end to controversial speakers at public schools, Horne brought Garcia Dugan, a Latina Republican, to the school to show the other side.
While Garcia Dugan spoke, students stood up, turned their backs to her and put their fists in the air.
Horne and Garcia Dugan said Wednesday that they had never seen such disrespect from students to a speaker, and they firmly believed that the students didn't learn to be rude at home, but in the classroom. Horne referred to testimony from current and former teachers as proof that Raza Studies students are taught not to trust other ethnicities, their teachers or the education system. Horne has said he has never visited an ethnic-studies class.
While the student protesters said Horne is essentially taking away their education, Horne said he wants students to "learn to treat each other as individuals and not as representatives of the race they were born into."
As Horne spoke to the media, students made their way to the state building and began protesting there. After the news conference, they entered the building atrium and began chanting loudly, interrupting the workday for employees there.
Both Tucson and state police supervised the protest and asked the students repeatedly to take it outside of the building, but they refused. Some protesters remained in the building late into the afternoon.
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or firstname.lastname@example.org