Calling for More

For those at TUSD board meeting two years ago, an investigation followed by an apology would be a great new beginning

Ann Yellott clearly remembers driving up to the Tucson Unified School District administration building 1010 E. 10th St. on May 3, 2011 wondering if the huge Tucson Police Department presence she saw that surrounded the building was needed or just a message to the community.

"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Yellott said. "It was so over the top. Clearly the district wanted to send a strong message to the community for what had happened the week before."

That was the famed April 26 meeting in which former and then-current Mexican-American Studies students took over the board meeting to prevent a proposal from moving forward to change the classes from academic to electives. While TUSD and TPD lodged an investigation against the students who chained themselves to the dais, members of the community began to meet to discuss what adults could do in response at the next meeting.

"We knew they were probably going to put security measures in place, and they did," Yellott said, referring to the metal detection wands that greeted everyone at the building's entrance for the May 3 meeting, along with a request to search purses and backpacks.

"Adults who supported the students wanted to take up where they left off. We didn't know what would happen, but we want to make sure the students understood they were supported," Yellott said.

What happened that night was a large contingent of police and patrol cars surrounding the administration building. The Tucson Weekly reported then, "... more than 100 officers, more than 20 motorcycles, several paddy wagons, about 10 patrol cars and a trailer." Inside, a handful of police dressed in full-riot gear surrounded those sitting in the packed board room. We estimated back then that almost 500 people showed up, with most of them forced to sit outside to listen to the meeting on speakers.

Those who spoke to the board asked for more time to address Mexican-American studies, but that request was denied by then-board president Mark Stegeman. Yellott said some members of the community decided to speak out of turn, which came with a risk - a risk of being arrested. Seven women were arrested that evening, including Yellott.

Outside, several hundred people surrounded the administration building. Pan Left Productions members filmed what was taking place outside - people grabbed and tossed by police to break out the chain that surrounded the building. Other abuses were also reported, and Tucson City Council-member Regina Romero had a meeting not long after at her office with TPD Chief Roberto Villasenor to address concerns and listen to other abuses that took place that night. The chief apologized and said there would be an investigation.

It was the only apology that was delivered. At a recent TUSD governing board special meeting on Aug. 27, 2013, UA Chicano studies assistant professor Roberto Rodriguez asked the board if there was more that needed to be done in order to facilitate healing.

Rodriguez said he showed up to address concerns about a preliminary list of books the board was scheduled to approve for use in the district's new culturally relevant curriculum classes and the fact that books remain banned.

"Yes, we can still debate that, but we know a curriculum was banned because somehow MAS was considered outside Western civilization," he said to the board.

"I know we are at a different place now, but it's not over." What occurred on May 3, 2011 was never addressed by the district. "Our community never received an accounting or an apology as if it never happened."

As the board meeting continued, TUSD governing board member Kristel Foster directed staff to look into the events of May 3 and new TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez agreed to do so.

"What happened on the May 3, 2011 board meeting symbolizes the absolute breakdown of trust between TUSD and the community," Foster recently told the Weekly.

"The new board and new superintendent are working diligently to reconnect and rebuild trust and strengthen our communication with the families who we serve. I asked Dr. Sanchez to investigate what happened that evening, since he was not there, so he understands our recent history. After that, whatever decisions the board and Dr. Sanchez make, I trust will align with this goal — to focus on kids and communication with the community."

Foster followed up that she also wanted to make it clear that no resolution was passed or voted on - just a request that Sanchez investigate in response to Rodriguez's statement during call to audience.

While Sanchez investigates, Rodriguez said he's gathering testimonies from people like Yellott, who were arrested inside, and those outside who claimed they faced abuses by TPD officers.

"The point is," he said, "is that something was done to this community and then the district pretended nothing happened. It's time to issue an apology and help us move on. I don't even think the community received a report from TPD. We still don't understand or know who authorized what took place that night."

Yellott said she would like to see something issued by the district, some resolution, even though two years later, offered to the community. It would be, she said, a chance to give Sanchez a fresh start in the district.

"It would say a lot," she said.

Yellott said the night she was arrested, she was taken out of the room by the officers dressed in riot gear. She left the room peacefully and was then cuffed and taken to the back of the administration building. She and several others were first taken to the TPD downtown headquarters, and then to the building at Alvernon and 22nd Street where they were booked, charged with disorderly conduct and held in cells for most of the evening before they were released in the middle of the night.

Although not everyone was driven away from the building. One person arrested, long-time community activist Guadalupe Castillo, was escorted out of the board room after she attempted to read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The gray-haired Castillo uses a cane in each hand to move around, so the image of her being escorted out by four police in riot gear, is one that has made it difficult for May 3, 2011 to just disappear.

"We still have a black eye," Rodriguez said to the board, describing the district.

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