Despite Protest, Tucson School Board Fires Ethnic Studies Director
Students call out school board for racist policies, vow to fight on despite decision
Sean Arce, the director of the embattled Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona was fired last night after a split vote by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Students, teachers, and community members gathered before the vote to champion Arce as a vital member of the school district and berated the TUSD board members for targeting Arce for dismissal due to his outspoken support for the ethnic studies program.
During a nearly three hour long open mic session, over four dozen supporters spoke vehemently in support of Arce, and chastised the board for their assault on education and the racist overtones of recent policies. Not one person spoke in support of Arce's dismissal. Board member Michael Hicks was repeatedly singled out, following his recent appearance on The Daily Show, during which he claimed students in the program ate burritos with their teachers to exercise 'solidarity'.
"I believe you prefer our children in prison than graduating from these high schools," said Isabel Garcia, one of the students to the board. "Sean Arce should stay and you should leave, Mr. Hicks," she said.
Following the testimonial portion of the hearing, dozens of students, alumni, and supporters created a chain with zip-ties and filled the TUSD board room with calls of "No justice, no peace, no racist TUSD" and "Whose education? Our education."
After the decision was announced, scuffles broke out as security guards tangled with students and a smoke bomb went off in the hall.
* * *
Speakers displayed anger, tears, raised voices and sometimes quiet dignity as they pleaded for the board to retain Arce and restore MAS classes, which were eliminated in January.
Michael Corio, the executive director of Tucson's AFSCME union local, decried what he called a "draconian system of justice" in the district, and pledged the support of the union — which represents government workers but not local teachers — for the program.
Erin Cain-Hodge, an alumna of the program, warned board members up for election, "I'd like to let you know that we're coming for you."
Sally Rusk, a teacher at Pueblo Magnet High School, said of Arce, "We're eternally grateful for his commitment to the community."
"There are people in this state who object to students learning their history," said Jerry Horton, speaking quietly. "Not all of them are north of the Gila."
"These young people will win, and we will win with them," he said.
Throughout the meeting, many audience members catcalled at board member Michael Hicks to resign, referencing his recent less-than-stellar appearance on "The Daily Show."
Some held masks of a cartoon of Hicks by artist Arnie Bermudez.
Occasional references to Hicks' "Daily Show" appearance drew wry smiles and chuckles from some board members, including Board President Mark Stegeman and member Miguel Cuevas.
But some audience members pressed their point on a more serious note.
"I believe you prefer our children in prison than graduating from these high schools," said Isabel Garcia.
"Sean Arce should stay and you should leave, Mr. Hicks," she said.
Hicks wasn't the only target. "Who's this guy, Stegeman's pet?" asked Ricardo Bracamonte of Cuevas.
While TUSD officials said Arce's contract was not renewed for budget reason, he said Tuesday night that it was payback for his outspoken support for the program.
As the vote was taken, the protesters resumed chanting, and at least one smoke bomb was set off in the board room. Demonstrators outside the building pounded on the walls and windows of TUSD headquarters. Some of the protesters indoors pulled out surgical masks to avoid the smoke.
The board and TUSD staffers swiftly filed out of the room, and the protesters continued chanting for about 10 minutes.
As they began to filter outside to join the demonstrators who remained on the blocked-off street, TUSD security personnel crowded against the remaining protesters. Several of the school safety officers pushed a group of protesters, still tied together at the wrists, through the doors of district headquarters.
As some of the demonstrators asked the TUSD officers to let them leave peacefully, a shoving match broke out, resulting in more TUSD security piling on a small group of youthful protesters in the gutter just outside.
As some in the crowd tossed water bottles, striking at least one security officer in the shoulder, others chanted "Let them go."
Onlookers and media gathered around the scrum, until one stocky TUSD officer erupted from the group, shoving a number of people, including this reporter, who was dragged by the security staffer at least 10 feet as he yelled "Get out of our way."
None of the other TUSD security officers followed him, and he walked off as members of the crowd chuckled in his wake.
Around the corner, about 14 Tucson Police Department cars and three police vans were parked in a vacant lot, but the sizable contingent of TPD officers didn't make an appearance at the district's headquarters.
Most of the protesters left quietly and quickly, with the majority clearing the street in front of TUSD's district office within 20 minutes of the vote.
* * *
And Jeff Biggers writes for Common Dreams:
Calling the board’s move “irresponsible, unlawful and reflects yet another step in TUSD’s descent into abysmal discrimination,” Arce’s attorney Richard Martinez warned in a letter on Tuesday that the non-renewal notice sent to the former MAS director also failed to follow proper legal procedures. “The Pedicone era at TUSD,” Martinez added, “has proven to be a complete disaster, one that has allowed racism to prevail over the educational needs and rights of our students.”
In an unprecedented appeal [before the vote], key state legislators expressed their support for Arce and noted his dismissal “would be a tremendous disappointment and detriment to the students of TUSD, the people of Tucson, and the state of Arizona. We urge you to reconsider the impact Mr. Arce has made on many students’ lives in his work in TUSD and consider renewing his contract.” Last week, US Rep. Raul Grijalva from Tucson lauded Arce for his national award and called the embattled director the “key to the success of the program and to the very necessary ongoing effort to save it. He has helped lead the program to a standard of excellence that we all continue to admire, and he will help lead it back to that same standard when these politically motivated attacks on students and education are just a bad memory.”
Writing in Education Week, in fact, renowned scholar Christine Sleeter noted 5,726 Mexican American and 712 non-Latino students had been served under Arce’s leadership, adding: “On Arizona’s achievement tests in reading, writing, and math, its students also outscore students of all racial and ethnic groups in the same schools but not in that program—a remarkable record. As schools nationwide struggle to close racial achievement gaps, Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program should be one from which we are learning.”
As stunned and demoralized Tucsonans filed out of the school board chambers amid the rings of police and aftermath of smoke bombs and protest, the TUSD board and superintendent John Pedicone made one thing clear: Closing the achievement gap and learning from the Mexican American Studies success will remain an endeavor for a different administration and school board to undertake in the future .
# # #