Update: Congressional Hispanic Caucus want an investigation into Tucson’s ethnic studies ban

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) –  Nearly two weeks since Tucson, Arizona’s, Mexican-American studies classes were suspended, some books have been removed from classes, teachers are uncertain about what curriculum to use and some students said they’d like to give district and state school administrators some homework: Listen to the students affected by the decision.

“I just want to talk to them,” said Nicolas Dominguez, a senior at Tucson Magnet High School, where administrators removed several seminal Mexican-American studies texts last week. “I want to talk to them about all of this, and I want to get to know them, because you have to get to know people before you can change them. I think it’s essential to become friends with the state superintendent and work together.”

The Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District voted January 10 to suspended its Mexican-American studies program after an administrative law judge ruled it violated a new state law and the state said the local district was going to lose $15 million in annual aid. In a district where 60% of the 53,000 students are Latino, some said they felt like Chicano or Mexican-American perspectives on history have become unacceptable.

This week, seven textbooks associated with the Mexican-American studies program were removed from classrooms, provoking claims of censorship. District leaders said they aren’t banning the books, but have removed them from classrooms while their content is evaluated.

The district’s Governing Board President, Mark Stegeman, said that copies of some of the books were still available in school libraries. But a search of the Tucson district’s school library online catalog, only a handful of copies of each book were available in any of the 11 high school libraries searchable online.

“I feel really disheartened,” said Maria Therese Mejia, a senior at Tucson Magnet High School. “Those are our history, you know? It’s ridiculous for them to be taking away our education. They’re taking (the books) to storage where no one can use them.”

Opponents of the book removals say district leaders cut off access to books that give an account of American history from the perspective of Latinos and indigenous people who lived in the Southwest long before Arizona was a state. The books were removed from classrooms on Friday, in at least one instance during class as students looked on.

The Tucson Unified School District issued a statement late Tuesday calling reports of book banning “completely false and misleading.”

Contrary to earlier reports which indicated that dozens of books listed as class materials had been taken away, the statement said only seven titles were affected:

“Critical Race Theory,” by Richard Delgado

“500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures,” edited by Elizabeth Martinez

“Message to AZTLAN,” by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales

“Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement,” by Arturo Rosales

“OccupiedAmerica: A History of Chicanos,” by Rodolfo Acuna

“Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire

“Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years,” edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson

“Each book has been boxed and stored as part of the process of suspending the classes,” the statement read. “The books listed above were cited in the ruling that found the classes out of compliance with state law.”

Arizona State Superintendent John Huppenthal ordered on January 6 that about 10% of the district’s state funding, about $15 million over the course of a year, be withheld, retroactive to August 15, 2011, if it did not dismantle its Mexican-American studies courses.

That order followed a December administrative law ruling that the program was teaching “in a biased, political and emotionally charged manner,” and upheld a state finding that it violated a 2010 law that bans ethnic studies classes which “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In Tucson, only  Mexican-American studies classes were affected.

An education company’s independent audit of Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program done concluded in May that none of the courses were in violation of that law, that they benefited students and contributed to a climate of acceptance in the schools. The audit suggested a review of two books for curriculum and age-appropriateness: “Message to AZTLAN,” a book of speeches and other writings by Chicano civil rights activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, and “500 Years or Chicano History in Pictures.”

“I think in most cases these books never went through a proper review process in the beginning, and they are now being removed, not in a specific review process but in that the state has decided these courses not be taught,” Stegeman said.

Stegeman said it’s possible some books could be reapproved for the classroom after a review. He said the review might take place before the summer break.

But in the meantime, the district’s decisions suspended classes called Latino literature, American history/Mexican-American perspectives, Chicano art and an American government/social justice education project course. With the curriculum dismissed and books removed, teachers say they haven’t received clear guidance on how to proceed with teaching their classes for the rest of the school year. They’ve been told that the district will issue a new curriculum that includes “a balanced presentation of diverse viewpoints on controversial issues,” but it hasn’t come yet. Teachers said their old curriculum already complied with those standards.

Curtis Acosta, a Tucson High teacher who has been with the district for 17 years, half of them as a teacher of Latino and Chicano literature, said he’s frustrated to be without a plan to move forward.

“Now we’re told we can talk about race, but it has to be through a multicultural perspective. And if you looked at our (old) curriculum, it was from a multicultural perspective,” said Acosta, who said he used the writing of Sherman Alexie, Martin Luther King Jr., William Shakespeare, Ronald Takaki and Jonathan Kozol in his classes.

“I’m not confident one bit to move forward with any writer that has that social justice streak in them,” Acosta said. “I have already built something that’s multicultural, centered around empowerment of youth and liberates them to make decisions critically and find their own academic integrity.”

Students said they’re learning a hard but practical lesson about politics.

“For me, what I’ve learned through all this is that students and youth have a lot of voices that we don’t get to express,” Mejia said. “We’re the ones who will be changed by this situation. We will be the ones who speak out and do marches, and we will be the ones making the future. And no matter what, we have the power to stand up for what we believe.”

Students have already staged several marches and a class walkout since the state law was passed in 2010, and another walkout is planned for January 24; students said they will attend a teach-in about Chicano history by University of Arizona professors.

A group of students and teachers, including Dominguez and Acosta, have filed a suit in federal district court to overturn the state law barring ethnic studies.

Outside organizations might get involved, too.

Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, said the removal of the books was a big topic of discussion at the association’s 2012 midwinter meeting, which began last Thursday in Dallas. Groups including REFORMA, the Latino librarians’ group, the American Indian Librarians’ Association and the Intellectual Freedom Committee planned to respond and a coalition of civil liberties groups were researching possible legal action and expecting to release a statement this week, Jones said.

Regardless of the words the district used, Jones said, it’s actions restricted access to books, which leads to censorship.

“We’re gathering facts. Right now it looks like it’s just the curriculum that’s affected and not school libraries,” Jones said. “But we know from experience this will eventually affect books in the library.”

Jones said there have been similar moves in Texas and other states to censor materials reflecting ethnic points of view. Such actions rob students of opportunities to form their own opinions, Jones said.

“If (school officials are) listening to their communities, they should understand that to take ethnic diversity out of curriculum in the 21st century is damaging and hateful,” Jones said. “It stifles the conversations we desperately need to have in this country about inclusion, about preparing all people in this country to go in the workforce, to go to college, to be successful in life. And to ban discussion about these types of issues is very damaging to our country and our democracy.”