At a 5:15 p.m. press conference tonight, the Glendale-based Civil Rights Center will discuss complaints that led the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in Denver to open two investigations into alleged civil rights abuses by the Tucson Unified School District.
The press conference takes place in front of the TUSD administration building, 1010 E. 10th St. Hat tip to DA Morales, who broke this story on Three Sonorans.
In a recent interview I did with Civil Rights Center executive director Silverio Garcia Jr., he said he filed a complaint against the district on Jan. 17, 2012, and then e-mailed the office in March with additional concerns. Here is the correspondence Garcia received confirming the TUSD investigations:
Garcia said the complaint is about the TUSD board meetings and other actions, but in particular alleges how past board meetings of interest to the Latino community have left a large part of that community watching or listening outside 1010, after TUSD officials refused to move those meetings to a larger venue. The complaint also involves the fact that some members of the community have been prevented from speaking at those meetings.
Last year, I was at meetings where board members discussed the fate of Mexican-American studies to a packed room. At the April 26, 2011, meeting, when members of the student-led UNIDOS took over the room, people stood in the lobby and doorway.
After that, at an early May 2011 meeting, when members of the community came out to support MAS, more than 100 police surrounded the building and stood wearing riot gear. Folks inside were arrested while wanting to speak to the board, and others were outside were manhandled by Tucson Police Department officers.
The board had discussed moving that meeting to a larger venue, but decided against the move. Instead of a larger venue, audio speakers were placed outside to allow people to listen to the meeting—but at times, the speakers didn't work, and people had to yell inside in order for those in charge to know they could not hear the meeting, because police had blocked the entrance.
While police presence may have decreased since those meetings, people entering the building for board meetings can only come in if they agree to be wanded—although recently, TUSD administration installed a metal-detector.
At the April 10, 2012, meeting when the governing board voted 3-2 to not renew MAS director Sean Arce's contract, the room was filled to capacity, but this time, the district not only had the meetings available to watch online with video streaming; a large screen was put up with new speakers—so those outside could watch and listen to the meeting from the comfort of the pavement.
Garcia said he understands that the district received notice of the complaint last month, and has retained outside council.
“That's a retainer and expenditure that I thought would have had to be approved by the board or at least listed on a past agenda,” Garcia said. “I'm going to look at how it was done and what their immediate response was. I also have not seen it listed on their executive agenda. They've known about this first complaint since April 18.”
Garcia recommended I do a records request for the letter the district has received from Office of Civil Rights – which should have a list of what the investigation is specifically looking at. We made a request though the district's media office today and have also made a formal records request with the public records office.
Garcia said the letter notifying the district of the investigation would go directly to the district's highest paid employee—Superintendent John Pedicone.
Besides complaints about board meetings and how the district communicates with limited English speakers, the investigation will also reportedly look at how the district handled the restrictions placed on the Cesar Chavez march kick-off from Pueblo High School. The district told organizers it could not publicly discuss Mexican-American studies or the Michael Hicks recall; organizers were also allegedly warned against saying anything negative about other board members.
Garcia said the Office of Civil Rights chose to separate out the Cesar Chavez march complaint in order to create two separate investigations.
“Both are about racial discrimination. period. Why isn't the district moving meetings that discuss topics that are important to more than 60 percent of the district? They are also do not have equal and meaningful access to people with limited English. The communications are all in English—the board agenda and information. I filed this complaint also on behalf of all languages. The district needs to have equal, meaningful access and communications,” Garcia said.
This is the first complaint Garcia has filed in Tucson since he started the center 14-years-ago when he filed his first complaint against Buckeye Elementary School. “I believe I have a good track record with the Office of Civil Rights. In those 14 years, I've never lied to them, or played politics,” he said.
In Friday's Arizona Daily Star, TUSD communications director Cara Rene confirmed receipt of the complaint and said that it was being reviewed by outside council, but had no further comment. Today, she sent the Weekly this statement:
"On April 23 Tucson Unified School District received a complaint from the United States Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in regards to the Jan. 10 district governing board meeting. The complaint alleges that TUSD discriminated by attempting to limit participation at the Board meeting and by failing to provide members of the public with limited English proficiency with meaningful access to the Board meetings and the TUSD website. Outside counsel has responded to the complaint and provided information requested by OCR. The complaint process allows for an investigation and findings by OCR. TUSD is committed to complying with the legal requirements pertaining to meaningful access for members of the public and welcomes any suggestions OCR may have for improvements in this area."