In reaction to Tuesday's youth takeover of the Tucson Unified School District's governing board meeting, board president Mark Stegeman wrote the following letter:
April 28, 2011
Open letter to the public, concerning the April 26 meeting of the Tucson Unified School District:
As is well known, the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board postponed its April 26 meeting after a crowd of students and allied persons filled the Board room shortly before the meeting was scheduled to start.
The frequent exercise of free speech, especially dissenting opinions, is one indicator of a healthy democratic society. At the same time, the district has a basic responsibility to conduct its meetings in an orderly manner and to provide a safe environment for persons who wish to attend.
Many members of the public were scheduled to speak to the Board on April 26; other members of the public were scheduled to make a major presentation; and many members of our community and the district’s staff had a stake in various items on the agenda. By failing to ensure an orderly environment and timely consideration of those items, the district failed in its obligations to all of those persons. The Board is ultimately accountable for that failure. On behalf of the Board, I apologize to the community.
In recent months TUSD has improved security at its meetings in response to increased public attendance, demonstrations, and some episodes of disorderly conduct. We knew that the ethnic studies item on the agenda raised the risk of problems, and TUSD’s security personnel revised some procedures accordingly. They did not anticipate the rapid and well-coordinated seizure of the dais (where the Board normally sits) by numerous students, who had brought hidden chains and locks into the Board room.
After the students controlled the dais and the room flooded with people, our primary concern was to avoid injuries. We decided that postponing the Board meeting and allowing the protest to wind down at its own speed was the safest option. TPD officers were available, nearby but outside the building, in case the situation deteriorated. Fortunately this did not happen and no injuries occurred. Staff is carefully reviewing our security staffing and procedures, to avoid repetition of this or any similar incident.
We also considered moving the April 26 meeting to another room in the building. This would have presented logistical problems, because of the number of presentations scheduled, the number of persons who were supposed to speak to the Board, and the difficulty of taping the meeting. By statute the meeting would still be open to the public, but any alternative room would have been much smaller, and the prospect of hundreds of persons trying to reach that room presented new risks of injuries.
The right of free speech and the right to political protest are fundamental and respected by the Board. In recent months, I have often extended the length of the audience call, to allow more people to speak at TUSD’s public meetings. The April 26 agenda included a special audience call, to allow members of the public to speak on the specific topic of ethnic studies. This special audience call will remain on the agenda of the rescheduled meeting.
Other essential pillars of a democratic society include the right of citizens to choose public officials in free elections and the capacity of those elected officials to conduct the public’s business in open meetings.
I appreciate the sincere passion that many students feel for the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) courses and know the frustration that something which one treasures could change. What occurred on Tuesday, however, went well beyond the exercise of free and passionate speech: the students shut down an elected body by force.
One of the MAS teachers was quoted in the press: “They’re [the students are] brilliant. This is not a one-time event. It looks like they’re not going to stop until they have an impact on this decision.” In this environment, ordinary prudence requires the Board to prepare for a continuing campaign of physical disruption, which aims to block measures (or even the debating of measures) which the students find undesirable.
Just as the Board is committed to free speech, so is it committed to protecting its ability to deliberate and make decisions in public meetings, in which all members of the public feel safe and respected.
President of the Governing Board, Tucson Unified School District