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Talking It Over 

Tucsonans prepare for John Huppenthal's ethnic-studies decision

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal is expected to issue a report this week on the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American Studies Department, saying whether its classes, in his eyes, violate an anti-ethnic-studies law that Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law last year.

The anticipated release of the compliance report has various groups coming together to make sure that there is not a repeat of what happened at the TUSD governing board meeting on May 3.

As the Tucson Weekly went to press this week, representatives from the Tucson Police Department met with individuals it identified as community stakeholders interested in the district's Mexican-American studies program.

According to a copy of an e-mail provided to the Weekly, sent on Friday, June 3, by TPD Capt. Michael Gillooly, the purpose of the Tuesday, June 7, meeting is to "produce a basic understanding and agreement on the conduct of free expressions and to reduce the potential for misperception and misunderstanding amongst all participants."

Gillooly wrote in the e-mail: "This meeting will be utilized to develop direct relationships amongst parties or groups that might be involved by exercising their First Amendment rights to either support the ruling or to protest against it. ... The Police Department desires the ability to develop a more specific understanding and agreement for particular events, where public safety agencies and event planners can negotiate their interests and carve out as much pre-agreement as possible so that all voices are heard in a safe and secure environment."

Ron Wakabayashi, western regional director of the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice, was expected to moderate the meeting.

On Wednesday, May 11, Wakabayashi participated in a meeting of faith and community leaders regarding civility and ethnic studies. The meeting addressed the May 3 TUSD board meeting, when seven people—all adult ethnic-studies supporters—were arrested.

Wakabayashi was also at a meeting on Monday, May 23, at Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero's office, where TPD Chief Roberto Villaseñor met with Mexican-American community leaders to discuss the police presence at the May 3 meeting.

Wakabayashi explained that he is invited to go into communities to act as a neutral party to help with conflict resolution.

"I've been to Tucson fairly frequently the last few months," he said, according to a recording of the meeting. "Usually I don't feel a need to come to Tucson," because there is usually a level of civility.

Calls to Gillooly and Wakabayashi seeking comment about the organization of the June 7 meeting were not returned. Exactly who invited the Department of Justice representative to Tucson in the first place is unclear; on May 23, Wakabayashi told Mexican-American leaders that those who request his presence usually remain private.

In anticipation of a controversial resolution from board president Mark Stegeman that would change some Mexican-American studies classes from core-credit classes, which count toward graduation requirements, to electives, members of the pro-ethnic-studies student-coalition UNIDOS took over the governing board meeting on Tuesday, April 26, in protest, claiming that their concerns were being ignored by the board and administration.

At the next meeting, on May 3, seven adults were arrested and issued citations, including Pima Community College professor and long-time community activist Guadalupe Castillo. TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone faced intense criticism for requesting the presence of police, who wore riot gear and surrounded the board room.

Police presence was also strong outside. Officers blocked the front entrance and alley ways, and 50 officers stood ready at a command center set up across the street. Pan Left documentary filmmakers filmed protesters being hit and shoved by police outside.

Beyond questions about what some considered to be an extreme police presence, Pima County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rogers and others wanted Villaseñor to explain why TPD officers were interviewing students who were part of the April 26 protest, apparently as part of an investigation that could lead to criminal prosecution.

At the May 23 meeting at Councilwoman Romero's office, Villaseñor said that TUSD administrators asked the police to conduct the investigation.

TPD was told there could be a counter-protest on May 3 of 150 to 250 people upset about what happened on April 26. The district was also concerned about calls from people who asked if they could bring guns to protect themselves.

"When we plan for these types of events, we plan for the possibilities, not the probabilities. When things go bad, it is too late to bring forces in at that time," Villaseñor said, according to the recording of the May 23 meeting. "Did we over-plan? You can make an argument on that. I don't want to make a statement like that at this point."

He reiterated that the decision to make arrests during the meeting was made by the superintendent, who was given the authority by the board president.

Villaseñor admitted there were mistakes made by police; for example, officers should have arrived at the administration building earlier; they should not have worn riot helmets during the meeting; and a helicopter should not have been deployed.

"That sets a tone," he said.

Regarding violence against protestors, Villaseñor defended his officers, saying that they were being hit, kicked and elbowed by protestors—specifically by those who created a human chain around the administration building.

"Outside, I don't want to comment too much. ... We don't train our officers to grab and launch people. That's not how we do this, but again, I want to do a complete and thorough investigation," Villaseñor said.

Jessica Pacheco, a community organizer and member of the Southern Arizona Unity Coalition, was emotional at the May 23 meeting as she attempted to explain her perspective. Andrea Romero, who was with Pacheco during the protest, took over for her friend and explained that they were sitting together with others, singing—not screaming or hitting police.

"Jessica and I were there together, and we had no warning—nothing from police, like, 'Please move.' ... People were being thrown; people were hurt," Romero said.

When Pacheco was finally able to speak, she told Villaseñor: "I was beat by one of your police officers ... so with all due respect, please separate the two issues. One of your police officers hit me," Pacheco said.

Villaseñor apologized.

"I am sorry. You obviously have distrust of us right now and are angry. You feel traumatized," he said.

More by Mari Herreras

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