PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona school district's decision to oust the director of a dismantled Mexican-American studies program and a recent segment on a TV comedy show have reignited anger among protesters who took over a school board meeting and accused members of being racist.
More than 100 protesters packed the Tucson Unified School District's meeting Tuesday night and used an extended public-comment period to defend the job of Sean Arce, director of the now disbanded Mexican-American studies program.
In the end, the board voted 3-2 against renewing Arce's contract with the district; it will expire at the end of June.
The vote caused uproar among protesters who set off a smoke bomb while wearing surgical masks and screamed at board members, "You should be ashamed!" ''Race traitor!" and "You're gonna regret it, bro!"
They then tied themselves together with plastic zip ties and chanted, "No justice, no peace, no racist TUSD!" as they waved signs that said, "Stop ethnic cleansing."
The chants turned into a scuffle with security guards outside the meeting, but no one was injured and no arrests were made, Tucson police Sgt. Linda Galindo said.
She said there was minor damage to the board room.
The protesters were calling on the board to renew Arce's contract and reinstate the district's controversial Mexican-American studies program, which some said demonized white people as oppressors of Hispanics while others said it simply taught Hispanic students more about their culture and was a more accurate depiction of historical facts.
The board voted to dismantle the program in January after Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal ordered that 10 percent of the district's monthly state aid, about $1 million a month, be withheld until the district complied with a newly enacted state law that targeted the program.
The district appealed Huppenthal's findings, and an administrative law judge in December upheld the decision by the schools chief.
Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law in May 2010, making it illegal to conduct classes that advocate ethnic solidarity that are designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group.
Protesters at Tuesday's meeting also acted out in response to an April 2 segment about the Mexican-American studies program on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
On the show, board member Michael Hicks says that part of the reason students enjoyed the Mexican-American studies program was because their teachers gave them burritos every week and told the interviewer: "If there's no more white people in the world, then OK, you can do what you want."
Also during the interview, Hicks said he had never observed one of the Mexican-American studies classes, adding: "I base my thoughts on hearsay."
Protesters hand-delivered a burrito to Hicks before Tuesday's board meeting and doled them out to people outside. They also carried signs with a caricature of Hicks on them that read: "When there's no more white people left, then yeah, they can do whatever they want."
Hicks declined to comment Wednesday.
Board President Mark Stegeman told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Hicks has said the comedy show edited his comments and made them sound worse than they were.
"He feels badly about it," Stegeman said. "It's hurt the district and I think I can basically say he regrets that."
He said controversy over the program's dismantling had died down until the segment aired and critics learned that Arce's contract with the district likely wouldn't be renewed.
"It sort of threw a grenade on the whole issue," Stegeman said of Tuesday's meeting.
He said the board could have had the protesters thrown out of the meeting at any time because they were being so disruptive but that members decided against it so people could voice their frustration.
He said he didn't learn of the smoke bomb until much later because it was set off after board members left the room, and that board security is reviewing the matter in hopes of preventing it in the future.
Tucson Unified School District: http://www.tusd.k12.az.us/
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