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Arizona youth occupy boardroom: ‘Save Ethnic Studies’

Published May 5, 2011 8:31 PM

A racist plan to denigrate a popular Ethnic Studies program in the Tucson schools has aroused resistance from a broad movement spearheaded by young people.

The Tucson Unified School District Board had scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. on April 26 to vote on a plan board member Mark Stegeman intended to introduce to reclassify the district’s Ethnic Studies program from the Core Curriculum to Electives.

Currently, Mexican-American history as well as other Ethnic Studies classes are part of the Core Curriculum and carry equal value in terms of academic requirements. Under Stegeman’s plan every student would have to fulfill the Core requirement of Eurocentric history but could “elect” to take a Mexican-American history class in addition, if they desired.

The TUSD board intends to have the district comply with the racist right-wing agenda and the anti-Ethnic Studies law HB 2281, which went into effect on Jan 1. This would relegate Ethnic Studies to second-class status in the curriculum and threaten its future removal.

By 5:30 p.m., the lobby of the TUSD building at 1010 E. Tenth Street was filled to capacity. The crowd of hundreds of Ethnic Studies supporters spilled out into the street in front of the building. At 5:45 p.m. the doors to the meeting room were opened, and the room was immediately filled.

A few minutes before the 6 p.m. meeting was to begin, nine youths catapulted to the podium and chained themselves to the nine board member chairs. The group unveiled a banner reading “The Youth School Board” from the podium and led the crowd in the room and the street outside in chants of “Our education is under attack. What do we do? Fight back!”

Other students in the room read a list of 10 demands, including an end to all racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Indigenous policies; the removal of the Arizona State attorney general, superintendent of schools and governor from their offices; and local control of education.

Board Superintendent John Pedicone was forced to cancel the meeting. The Stegeman plan was never introduced and no vote was taken.

The following morning Pedicone announced that he had turned over video of the meeting to the Tucson Police Department for review in an attempt to file criminal charges against the youths and any adults who supported them.

The next few days were filled with racist rants and calls for retribution against these courageous youth from local right-wing radio talk shows and media outlets. Local immigrant-rights activist Isabel Garcia, who was in the TUSD meeting room at the time of the takeover, was singled out and accused of instigating the “student riot.”

This media attack was orchestrated very much the same way as the attack against local sheriff Clarence Dupnik after he blamed the right wing in the wake of the Jan. 8 shootings and attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Pedicone also published an op-ed piece in the local newspaper condemning the students and further insinuating that adults and the Ethnic Studies program itself were to blame for the April 26 takeover. He also announced that the TUSD Board would meet again on May 3 to discuss the Stegeman plan. Pedicone is tripling the number of cops at the meeting and arming them, as well as bringing in metal detectors and mandating searches of every person entering the TUSD Building.

These tactics have not fazed the students or their supporters. Tucson’s May Day rally was centered on support for the students and Ethnic Studies. A wide range of community organizations are working to fill the streets on May 3 and fight back against this attack on the fundamental right to comprehensive, quality education.