Stumbling further into the quagmire of a national public relations disaster, drastic new measures by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) officials have turned the “manufactured crisis” over the Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies Program into a troubling moral crisis for the city–and the country.
As Tucson school officials appear to unravel daily with increasing controversy, Mexican American Studies (MAS) students and UNIDOS activists are now emerging as the calmest standard-bearers of civil discourse for the community.
In an alarming crackdown on the non-violent UNIDOS student campaign last week that attracted national praise for its celebratory actions and demands for basic democratic involvement in education, the backpedaling TUSD superintendent John Pedicone has shocked the community by hiring costly armed guards to monitor this Tuesday’s rescheduled governing school board vote over a controversial school board resolution to strip the accreditation of the Ethnic Studies Program.
Only months ago, the Chicago-transplanted Pedicone declared the draconian state ban on Ethnic Studies was unconstitutional and a challenge to the law would be “the first hurdle.” In a candidate’s forum last fall, Pedicone even admitted: “If you look at the data, it is hard to argue with the success this program has with a historically under served population.” In fact, a recent TUSD analysis demonstrated the achievements of the MAS program.
In a disturbing provocation this Sunday, Pedicone, who reportedly lives out of the district in the affluent suburb of Oro Valley, published an incendiary oped in the Arizona Daily Star newspaper that offensively denigrated student efforts “as pawns,” blamed adults for “abhorrent” behavior, and falsely categorized last week’s widely denounced resolution vote as only a “discussion.”
As Tucson attorney Richard Martinez noted last week in a debate with TUSD board president Mark Stegement, the divisive resolution prematurely subverts an unfinished state audit in disarray, as well as a federal suit challenging the constitutionality of the new state law banning Ethnic Studies. In a quiet but stunning smackdown of Stegemen’s misguided efforts, Martinez framed the TUSD effort as part of a “manufactured crisis.”
This is the simple truth: Compounding the shameless Ethnic Studies witch hunt by extremist state officials, the Democraty Party-led TUSD school administrators have triggered a “moral crisis” over their seeming disconnection to the actual city of Tucson, by rebuffing MAS student and UNIDOS participation, and blatantly disregarding the reality of the district’s majority of Mexican American students and the city’s fervent and deeply rooted Chicano movement heritage.
On the anniversary today of the “Children’s Crusade” in the Civil Right Movements, when students took the forefront of Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign in 1963, Mexican American Studies student group UNIDOS is not only ramping up its efforts to keep the district’s acclaimed program alive but teach the faltering school administrators a lesson in civility and democracy.
As the Tucson students reminded their community, Martin Luther King, Jr wrote his historic “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” on “Why We Can’t Wait,” as he faced similar criticism of his protests as “unruly.” King wrote: “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!…This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” Nearly a half century ago, Alabama students recognized King’s call “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
“When youth transparently vocalize that they are unsatisfied with decisions made on their education,” said 20-year-old MAS alumni, UA journalism student and UNIDOS activist Elisa Meza, “that should motivate the elected school board officials to initiate the civil discourse they believe we haven’t already requested. Since February, TUSD have been pressured by the youth to initiate just that. To blame the youth that direct dialogue should have been the first step is a tactic to switch the narrative to imply immaturity on our actions. When, in reality, they’ve been incredibly immature to have ignored our voices in the first place.”
As graduating and college-bound MAS high school Lisette Cota spelled out last month, UNIDOS has been asking for dialogue with the school officials for months.
For many long-time community members, the student uprising last week in Tucson recalled the Chicano student walkouts in the community in 1969, and marks the beginning of a new civil rights movement.
Consider this time line provided by UNIDOS over the last four months:
Jan 3- Two hours before Tom Horne’s position changes from State Superintendent to Attorney General serves a letter to TUSD calling them out of compliance with 2281 and has 60 days to eliminate the program before the states begins withholding funds. He presents “evidence” of the classes’ non-compliance such as testimony from anonymous teachers, out of context quotes from books like Rudolfo Acuna’s Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and lyrics from Chicano hip hop groups “El Vuh” and “Aztlan Underground”.
The 11 teachers along with their attorney Richard Martinez and Save Ethnic Studies.org, the non-profit organization providing the legal defense for the teachers, counter his press conference with their own a few hours later in Tucson.
Jan 8- John Roll, Chief Arizona US District Judge who was assigned to see the case against HB 2281, is killed along with 5 others at a “Congress on your Corner” event with Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords. Congresswoman Giffords is shot and 19 others are injured. A 45-day extension is added to TUSD’s 60 day deadline to become in compliance in HB 2281.
Jan 11- The 11 plaintiffs announce to TUSD school board members that if the district does not join their lawsuit or create their own battling the state of AZ on the constitutionality of the bill, they will be added onto the lawsuit as defendants. They give TUSD 48 hrs to reply.
Jan 14- TUSD announces to the “Arizona Daily Star” that the district is going to be incompliance with the bill, making whatever compromises to the program to do so.
TUSD is now going to be added on to the lawsuit Acosta v. The State of AZ.
Jan 24- The 5 who were found guilty are sentenced to 10 hours of community service and fines.
Feb 5- Mexican American Studies Community Advisory Committee hosts first Community Forum in Support of TUSD’s Ethnic Studies Program to educate about the success of the program and rally support on combating HB 2281.
Students of the program, parents of the students, teachers and staff of the department, and elected officials speak on behalf of Ethnic Studies.
Feb 8- At TUSD school board meeting U.N.I.D.O.S.- United Non-discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies; a new Tucson youth coalition of students from local high schools, alumni and community members who formed in response of the growing attacks on education and culture by Arizona legislature, make their grand debut to the community and TUSD board members with a press conference.
Representatives of the group demand a sit-down meeting with all TUSD school board members and that the district, the State Board of Education and the state of Arizona must act in accordance to international human rights laws, which HB 2281 violates.
A musical, cultural and artistic celebration continues outside of TUSD 1010 building after the demands are read to school board members during the Call to the Audience.
Feb. 28- UNIDOS has a sit down discussion with only two of the five TUSD board members Adelita Grijalva and Judy Burns and present the positive impacts that Raza Studies does for the Latino community and what negative results will occur to the district’s students if TUSD doesn’t do everything in its power to protect the classes.
Mar. 8- UNIDOS representatives make a public statement in response to their meeting with the two school board members during Call to the Audience at TUSD school board meeting. UNIDOS demands for an announcement by the board members in the next 24 hours that they will keep the classes as they are no matter what the state may do. UNIDOS urges the district to act in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “One has not only a legal, but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
That very same morning of the school board meeting, unbeknownst to the community, the district made its first move to dismantle the program from the inside. Superintendent John Pedicone gave his position as supervisor over Director of Student Equity, Augustine Romero and Mexican-American Studies Director, Sean Arce to Asst. Superintendent Lupita Garcia- who has openly made statements in the past she would like to see the department abolished.
Mar 11- Mexican American Studies Community Advisory Committee holds press conference outside TUSD 1010 building denouncing the move of positions.
Mar 16- The Arizona Department of Education and State Superintendent John Huppental hire the Cambium Learning Group of Dallas, TX to conduct a 4-6 week curriculum audit of the Mexican American Studies Department to evaluate whether the program is in compliance with HB 2281 and meets up to state standards. The audit group will make unannounced classroom visits, interview students and staff, and evaluate teaching materials.
Mar 17- Save Ethnic Studies sends a letter to the TUSD governing board bringing to light the criminal history of Steve Gallon, who is appointed as head consultant of the audit for Mexican American Studies. Steve Gallon is the former superintendent of Plainfield School District in New Jersey and was arrested in 2010 with 11 criminal charges including conspiring to commit theft of more than $10,000 of educational services.
Mar 18- Steve Gallon resigns from the position following Save Ethnic Studies’ coverage of his criminal past and is replaced by Luanne Nelson.
Mar 21- State audit for Mexican American Studies begins and Save Ethnic Studies with attorney Richard Martinez issue a press release calling the audit unlawful and a waste of tax payer money which will cost us $170,000. Martinez brings into question how the audit could possibly remain unbiased when the state of Arizona is hiring this group to investigate the teachers who are suing the state over the constitutionality of HB 2281. He also points out additional violations such as Federal Family, Educational, and Privacy Rights Act of 1974.
Mark Stegeman, president of the Tucson Unified School District governing board, submits an opinion piece to the Arizona Daily Star calling for Mexican American Studies to transition to Hispanic Student Services, which would only focus on extracurricular activities, and for the classes, who currently count as accredited core English and Social Studies classes, to be reduced down to elective classes.
April 6- The 11 teachers suing the state refuse to meet with the auditors in a “focus group discussion”. Save Ethnic Studies sends a letter on their behalf to Superintendent Pedicone declining the invitation because the audit lacks any legal authority, defined terms and remains unknown if the persons conducting the audits have any expertise in Mexican American critical race theory.
April 11- Sally Rusk and Maria Federico-Brummer, two of the eleven teachers express in an op-ed how any sort of compromise to the program is unacceptable. They explain why transition the classes from accredited core classes to electives would kill the program. They further defend the program which meets and excels far beyond the achievement gap for the Latino population which is the second largest failing in TUSD as well as its majority population. In fact most of schools where these classes are taught have a 90% minority population-mainly Latino.
April 12- UNIDOS boycotts TUSD school board meeting due to silenced youth voice. Students in press release recount the lack of response to their demands for the district, superintendent and board members to show true support for the program. Instead, all the district has done is refuse to join the teacher lawsuit or initiate one of their own, released a resolution declaring compliance with an unjust HB 2281, are currently cooperating with a biased State audit of the classes, and the board president Mark Stegeman is publicly advocated for killing our Ethnic Studies program by turning our classes into electives.
As the nation watches today’s historic meeting in Tucson, Pedicone and the TUSD officials will have the choice of reaffirming the process of democratic involvement with UNIDOS and all students and community members, as Martin Luther King wrote, “to heal” the legacies of the past and move the district forward, or retreating deeper into the quagmire of the state’s embarrassing witch hunt.