Surrounded by armed security guards and police officers, the TUSD Governing Board decided to hold off on making changes to the ethnic studies program until it holds a public forum on the proposal.
Board President Mark Stegeman made the recommendation to delay the vote and the Tucson Unified School District has plans to organize a community forum. After the forum is held, Stegeman said he plans to bring the proposal back to the board.
The no decision capped a four-hour meeting before a standing-room-only crowd inside TUSD headquarters while about 300 people waited outside. At least seven people who attempted to talk to the board were removed by police from the meeting.
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 of the board meeting.
“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 was 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.
Part of the security measures included screening of those allowed inside. Upon entering the board room, they were met by Tucson police officers in tactical gear.
The proposed change to the ethnic studies courses, supported by board President Mark Stegeman and members Miguel Cuevasand Michael Hicks, applies to social studies courses offered by the Mexican American Studies department.
Board members Judy Burns and Member Adelita Grijalva are opposed.
They argued that such a change would dismantle the program and that there would be no incentive for students to take the course because that 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 says 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 that content to reach more students, but will also 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 raucous crowd of about 300 people gathered while the meeting progressed. They chanted, waved flags, cheered and jeered through the evening. Some student members of Unidos even held their own mock board meeting.
Among other things, supporters of ethnic studies want 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 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 working on overtime. The officers were pulled from various units to provide security. A police helicopter flew overhead during the evening and a K-9 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.”
Shortly before the meeting started, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone walked outside. 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.
Earlier in the day, Pedicone urged the Governing Board to hold off on a vote.
“It is clear there is a great deal of misperception and miscommunication about the reason for consideration of this item,” Pedicone said. “This has resulted in heightened levels of frustration.”
Star reporters Carmen Duarte, Marisa Gerber and Ernesto Portillo Jr. contributed to this story.