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Ethnic studies supporters overtake TUSD meeting

Youths protest changes to Mexican American Studies courses

  • Updated
TUSD Governing Board members Adelita Grijalva, left, and Judy Burns listen to protesters inside the TUSD boardroom. "This is TUSD students telling us as a board that they demand to be listened to," Grijalva said.

The TUSD Governing Board was forced to cancel its meeting Tuesday night after ethnic studies supporters stormed the meeting room and chained themselves to chairs.

The board was scheduled to consider a proposal that some Mexican American Studies courses would no longer be used to fulfill core-curriculum requirements.

The protest was organized by a youth coalition called UNIDOS. The group demanded the proposal, written by board President Mark Stegeman, be withdrawn.

Superintendent John Pedicone said the proposal will not be removed from the agenda and the meeting has been rescheduled for May 5. It will likely be held at one of the high schools to accommodate a larger crowd.

"I think there's a great deal of frustration and misunderstanding regarding what Dr. Stegeman is working to do," Pedicone said. "I'm concerned that this creates an impression that the district is harming these students.

"There's no attempt to hide Mexican-American history and this board needs to have the opportunity to explore this option in the open, but that can't be done in this kind of situation."

The students forced themselves into an already packed boardroom around 5:45 p.m. - 15 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin.

TUSD security officials attempted to remove the students but were unsuccessful. Tucson police officers were posted outside of TUSD headquarters, but were asked by the district not to make their way inside as long as the assembly remained peaceful.

Chants of "Our education is under attack, what do we do? Fight back" rang out in what quickly became a rowdy boardroom.

Pedicone, along with TUSD board members Judy Burns, Adelita Grijalva and Michael Hicks, came out of executive session to assess the situation but were unable to speak to the crowd. Stegeman and board member Miguel Cuevas did not face the crowd.

When it became clear that the supporters had no intention of leaving, the meeting was canceled but protests continued for two hours.

"We decided to do this because our voices were being silenced," said Lisette Cota, a Pueblo Magnet High School senior.

Cota acknowledged that the protest may be viewed as students starting trouble, but she still felt it was effective in sending the message that any change to Mexican American Studies is unacceptable.

Rincon High School senior Denise Rebeil agreed, saying that even though the full board did not come out and listen to them, the message got through to the community.

At least one board member, Grijalva, felt the protest was effective.

"This is TUSD students telling us as a board that they demand to be listened to," she said. "They want to be considered, and really, they are the ones we represent."

The protest didn't sway Stegeman, who said his arguments still stand.

"Protest is an important American tradition and TUSD has no desire to stop it," he said. However, "TUSD students' participation in tonight's actions could raise doubts about the methods which we use to teach critical thinking."

Stegeman proposed the program change because he felt that some Mexican American Studies courses fall short in covering core topics, just as traditional core social studies classes do not provide adequate coverage of alternative viewpoints.

He recommends strengthening core classes by adding a significant component that focuses on the contributions and viewpoints of Mexican Americans and other ethnic minorities.

The proposal caused a division between board members, with Burns and Grijalva refusing to support it. Hicks said he would back Stegeman's proposal, but Cuevas said he hadn't made a decision leading up to the meeting.

Supporters of Mexican American Studies argue that such a structural change would slowly dismantle the program, that students would not be able to fit in another elective and that most would not be willing to double up on history courses.

The Mexican American Studies program has been in the line of fire for years as state officials and others questioned whether the content is too controversial. At the start of the year, the program was identified as being out of compliance with state law as a result and the district now stands to lose millions of dollars in state funding.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175.

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