Day One (Part One) of the Ethnic Studies Appeal: Stegeman Describes Classes' as Cult-Like

Four witnesses testified during the first day of the three-part administrative hearing on the Tucson Unified School District’s appeal of Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal’s findings that the district’s Mexican American Studies classes defy the state’s anti-ethnic studies law.

However, it was the testimony of TUSD board president Mark Stegeman that offered another perspective the controversial board member has never shared with the public — his personal observations of the Mexican American Studies classes and how they remind him of cult-like behaviors he studied in a book.

Looking distressed, uncomfortable and sometimes pained as he sat on the dais offering testimony as an expert witness for the state, Stegeman was first asked if he was familiar with the MAS program and that all the governing board is required to approve the curriculum and books.

Stegeman said yes, and then the attorney for the state reminded Stegeman of his action last year when he requested the board staff to find out all board actions on the program, and the result was that there were no actions, but books approved on consent agenda. “But no formal approval of the classes.”

The attorney asked Stegeman if he has experience with critical race theory. He said yes, from his college days. Then Stegeman is asked to discuss notes he took after visiting two MAS classes — Curtis Acosta’s Chicano literature class at Tucson Magnet High School and Jose Gonzalez’s social justice American government perspectives class at Rincon High School.

Also included in his notes, given to the state as part of a record request prior to the hearing, was a photo of a statement or artwork hanging outside an ethnic studies classroom — exactly what it is isn’t shown or specifically described by the attorney or Stegeman.

The attorney wanted to know who the teacher was who gave him the photo. Stegeman squirmed in this seat, hesitates and looks down at a notebook in front of him. He answered that it was given to him by Travis Kline, a teacher at Pueblo High School. Later in the testimony, Stegeman uncomfortably described the photo — a statement about the Arizona flag's star and that it is now a Nazi symbol post-SB 1070.

Back to discussing the classes he visited, Stegeman said Gonzalez had a picture of a political cartoon up and was asking the students to write about it and then breakout into small groups to discuss. During the discussion period, Stegeman says he stepped away and then happened to notice a power point presentation on Gonzalez's laptop that made references to segregating students, among other things that made the board president uncomfortable.

Stegeman noted that Gonzalez asked his students at the end of the class what made the class special, and students answered social activism or social justice. Stegeman said he speculated the teacher changed his class for Stegeman’s benefit.

During his visit to Acosta’s classes, Stegeman made notes that the class was mostly Latino, although one student mentioned that they were half-Anglo and half-Mexican.

But what troubled Stegeman more than the racial make-up of the class was the traditional clapping and chanting each MAS class begins with.

In Stegeman’s notes he described it as ritualized. “I guess I had an epiphany,” Stegeman told the attorney. He instantly thought about a book he read a long time ago that described different facets and the social dynamics of cult psychology.

That cult-like behavior he observed out of the classroom, too, and he found it troubling that classes had a social justice frame. “My overall impression is that what happens in class is collective identity."

Stegeman shared a story from his notes about a student who came up to him weeping because she was worried about her teacher, Acosta, for his future and his pregnant wife. Stegeman said it made him uncomfortable because teachers are supposed to be caregivers, not students.

As the year moved on, Stegeman said he also experienced rhetoric from MAS supporters that was hateful and accusations from members of the community that he wanted to destroy the program.

“When the district proposed a forum the resistance was so big,” Stegeman says, adding he didn’t understand why. He was also troubled that when Acosta introduced him to his classroom he was introduced as the “Person who wrote the op-ed,” referring to the editorial Stegeman wrote for the Arizona Daily Star unveiling an early idea to expand the MAS program by turning most of the classes into electives, rather than offering them as credit-classes that fulfilled history requirements for graduation.

This spring, Stegeman pushed the idea and created a resolution. High school students spoke against the proposal in a series of board meetings and eventually those same students, along with former MAS students who attend the UA, took over the board meeting and prevented a vote on the resolution — which ended up delayed indefinitely.

Stegeman also complained to the state’s attorney about the rhetoric he hears from the community about the Hispanic population eventually being the majority population.

When it was Heather Gaines' turn, the school district’s attorney from DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy, she asked Stegeman is he would agree that MAS has become “a very emotionally charged issue in Tucson.”

“Yes,” Stegeman answered.

Gaines asked Stegeman that when he was observing Gonzalez’s class at Rincon, did he hear anything that sounded like the teacher was promoting resentment toward a race or class of people or advocating for ethnic solidarity.

“Not that I remember, but political content,” he answered.

“When the teacher asked what they liked about the class and they said the emphasis on social justice, it wasn’t Chicano-centric, was it?” Gaines asked.

“No, it wasn’t.”

But when it came to Acosta’s class, there was something different — the rhythmic clapping was more relevant in the literature teacher’s class, Stegeman said.

“For whatever reason I did not get the same sense in Mr. Gonzalez’s class of a ritualized activity that I observed in Acosta’s… it’s a matter of interpretation…”

TUSD governing board member Mike Hicks took to the dais after Stegeman to also testify as an expert witness on behalf of the state.

The state’s attorney asked Hicks about a press release he sent out that was published in the Tucson Weekly’s Range, in which Hicks questioned the district's decision to appeal Huppenthal’s findings and the circumstances surrounding the vote.

The first round of voting, Superintendent John Pedicone’s request to appeal was denied, but then the board decided to vote again, and it was Hick’s vote that turned it around and allowed the appeal.

Hicks said he thought it was to get an idea of how the district was in noncompliance of the law, but the district denied issues they knew were true, such as not properly approving the curriculum and text books.

The attorney also asked Hicks to explain his thoughts about the classes. Are teachers indoctrinating students and is there an "us versus them" mentality being created. Yes, Hicks answered. He said he discussed this with parents and students, some that had been in the MAS classes. At functions and parties, Hicks said people share with him their thoughts and concerns about MAS.

“In light of the revelations do you believe the program must come to an end? Do you believe it is out of compliance?”

“Yes, it is my personal belief based on information I have received from excerpts from books, communications teachers have presented, YouTube videos. I feel I am a pretty logical individual …That’s my belief,” Hicks answered.

During Hicks testimony and other witnesses, including Arizona Department of Education's chief of programs and policy, John Stollar, were asked about a scholarly paper published by TUSD student equity director Augustine Romero and MAS director Sean Arce, co-founders in some regards to the existing MAS program.

The article discusses issues surrounding white privilege and how this relates to early U.S. history and current issues, among other topics.

“Does this raise a concern in your mind that the education philosophy might be in violation and promote a race or class of people,” the attorney asked, pointing to the article, although the article is not used in the classroom.

“I think it can be construed as,” Hicks said.

Hicks was also asked if he believed TUSD was in violation of the anti-ethnic studies law, and he answered yes.
Hicks discussed his observation of MAS teacher Sally Rusk’s classroom at Pueblo High School. The TUSD attorney relayed that the classroom discussion during that time was on the Zoot Suit Riots and is a potentially volatile topic.

Hicks agreed.

“Did you observe discussion that promoted racial resentment?”

Hicks said no. The only odd thing about the visit was that the school’s principal and vice principal sat in on the observation, too. It was the only classroom Hicks visited.

Tomorrow, the Range will have more from Hicks, and others who testified at the hearing. Part Two.