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Ex-schools chief Huppenthal unapologetic over criticism of TUSD's ethnic studies
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Ex-schools chief Huppenthal unapologetic over criticism of TUSD's ethnic studies

The derogatory comments former Arizona School Superintendent John Huppenthal made online continue to follow him around, years after he first posted them anonymously.

Among other comments, Huppenthal previously referred to Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program as the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group, in a “different color” and its teachers as “skinheads.”

The posts were first discovered and publicized in 2014, prompting a tearful apology from Huppenthal at the time.

Now the comments have re-emerged in U.S. District Court in Tucson on the second day of a bench trial over the matter of a state law banning the ethnic-studies programs.

In hindsight, Huppenthal said, he wasn’t sorry for what he said online.

“I viewed it more as apologizing for the distraction,” Huppenthal said in response to questioning from Steve Reiss, an attorney for the plaintiffs fighting to void the 2010 law. He added that he only wished he’d had a more “graceful” tone.

Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima is overseeing the trial in the debate over whether state officials, including Huppenthal, had discriminatory or racist intent in enacting the state law, which TUSD’s Mexican American Studies teachers and students viewed as having specifically targeted them.

They challenged the state law as unconstitutional, which Tashima previously dismissed. Since then, the case has traveled up to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit and back down to district level.

Huppenthal was the only witness to take the stand Tuesday. He will return to testify again Wednesday morning.

The defense highlighted Huppenthal’s upbringing in a poor neighborhood on Tucson’s south side and his current efforts in volunteering as a math teacher to help minority students in south Phoenix.

“There wasn’t much food in the refrigerator,” he said of his childhood in an interview. He frequently referred to himself as a “South Tucson boy.”

He attended St. John the Evangelist Catholic School near Ajo Way and 12th Avenue, where he said he was one of the only Caucasian students, and later, Salpointe Catholic High School. Both are private schools that charge tuition — Huppenthal said he paid his own way through high school by working night jobs.

Leslie Cooper, a state attorney, asked about his commitment as state schools chief to boosting the achievement of all students, including those of color. Huppenthal replied that under his watch, minority students’ academics improved.

What he most took issue with in regards to TUSD’s program, he said, was the use of the oppressed-oppressor framework that leads Mexican-American students to believe that white people are oppressing them. He called it “toxic,” saying America’s prosperity is based on equal opportunity.

Cooper ended her line of questioning by directly asking the former state senator and schools chief if racism or ethnic bias motivated the state law, of which he was an architect. Huppenthal replied, “No.”

Steve Reiss, an attorney for the plaintiffs, alleged that Huppenthal contradicted himself when he discredited an outside audit conducted on the program as having “limited usefulness,” saying the classroom observations of the program were insufficient. “People don’t misbehave when they’re being observed,” Huppenthal said.

The audit found no violation of the state law, though it noted that there was an abundance of controversial material being used .

But the then-superintendent subsequently issued his own findings based on material he and his staff gathered.

When questioned about press releases from the Arizona Department of Education, statements and documents he signed or video clips in which he is speaking, Huppenthal frequently said, “I don’t recall” or shifted the responsibility to his former senior staffers.

Reiss also argued that Huppenthal had intended specifically to shut down the program, saying the law allows for a penalty of “up to 10 percent” to programs found to have been in non-compliance and Huppenthal had threatened the district with the maximum fiscal penalty.

“You knew this would kill the program,” Reiss said. Huppenthal was also seen on video talking about a “stretched out” strategy against the program.

The former schools chief denied that allegation, saying, “I never anticipated that the program would collapse.” He maintained that he had meant for the program to clean up its act and move on.

Even now, Huppenthal hasn’t stopped blogging, Reiss, also pointed out.

Just last week, the lawyer said Huppenthal blogged, “This has to qualify as one of the most meaningless trials in history,” referring to the bench trial taking place.

The first portion of the trial continues until Friday, and a second week of trial is scheduled to take place in mid-July.

Contact: 573-4243 or On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung

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Data reporter

Data reporter on the investigative team for the Arizona Daily Star

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