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Ethnic studies protestors not off the hook yet

Reporter:  Tammy Vo Web Producer:  Forrest Carr

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Legally speaking, protestors who stormed and took over the Tucson Unified School Board meeting room Tuesday night in a fight over ethnic studies are not out of the woods yet.  The Tucson Police Department and TUSD both confirm that the department is actively investigating and that charges are still possible.

In Tuesday night's incident, chanting protestors demonstrating in favor of the district's embattled Mexican American studies program filled the meeting room.  Several young students shouldered past overwhelmed security guards and succeeded in chaining themselves to board members' chairs.  The rowdy takeover forced cancellation of the board meeting.

At the time, TUSD officials decided not to ask police to clear the room and make arrests.  But a TPD spokesman told KGUN9 News on Thursday that arrests could still happen.  Public information officer Matt Ronstadt said that officers are in the process of reviewing video taken during the incident and are taking statements.

Ronstadt said officers plan to have a follow-up meeting with TUSD officials some time before the next board meeting to discuss what happened and learn what action, if any, the district wants to take.  Ronstadt said those participating in the takeover could face charges including disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and disturbing a public meeting.

Late Thursday afternoon superintendent John Pedicone issued a statement to the media.  "It is the position of school administration that this was an unlawful act which interfered with the effective operation of the school district," Pedicone wrote.  "While students and community members have the right of free speech, they do not have the right to interfere with or impede the operation of the district, especially as it applies to the governance function."

A student group known as UNIDOS claimed credit for the disruption, but not all of those participating were TUSD students.  The goal was to prevent the board from voting on a proposal to turn the ethnic studies program into an elective, a move opponents feel will effectively kill the program.  The board is scheduled to try again next week.  This time it will move the meeting to a larger venue at Catalina High School.

Pedicone said that TUSD does not intend to allow protestors to engage in a repeat performance.   "This type of behavior will not be tolerated.  Precautions will be taken to prevent any recurrence of this type of incident in the future and will include enhanced safety and security procedures."

State education chief John Huppenthal is now auditing TUSD's program to determine whether it violates a new state law placing restrictions on such programs.  Among other things, the law prohibits programs that teach "ethnic solidarity" or that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.  If TUSD is found to be out of compliance, it could face the loss of millions of dollars in state funding.

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