Saturday, April 01, 2006

High School Flag Fight

On Thursday, some Arizona high school kids took down their school's American flag and replaced it with a Mexican banner. Then, some other students hauled down the Mexican tri-color and burned it:
This week’s tensions over immigration reform literally caught fire in the East Valley on Thursday when students raised a Mexican flag over Apache Junction High School — and then other students yanked it down and burned it.

“I know (they) shouldn’t have burned the Mexican flag,” said Jacob Stewart, a 16-year-old sophomore. “I heard it was raised above the American flag and that just irked me.”

He said the turbulence was tied to the newsmaking debates in the state Legislature and in Congress, where ideas from offering illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship to making them felons are being considered.

Freshman Chelsea Garcia, 15, and junior Brittany Ramage, 16, said the unrest had more to do with longrunning racial tensions at the school.

“(This week’s events) might have sparked a little more anger,” Ramage said. “But kids are not very deep about that stuff.”

The Hispanic student who brought the Mexican flag said he was responding to a racist remark directed at him Wednesday. The flagraising, flag-burning and shoving match that followed happened before most students arrived at school.

Six students — three Hispanic and three white — will be disciplined, principal Chad Wilson said.

Officials with the Apache Junction Unified School District would not specify what kind of punishment the six students face.

Wilson said in a letter sent home to parents that there would be “increased supervision, including additional police officers, on the campus over the next couple of days.”

District spokeswoman Carol Shepherd said the additional security was being brought in as a precaution.

“It’s one of those situations where if you didn’t have additional security and something did happen, we’d be challenged by parents about why we didn’t do anything,” she said.

Wilson said the increased security would include four off-duty police officers the district hired as security guards, along with its regular school resource officer.

By early afternoon Thursday, district officials said the environment on campus had sufficiently calmed down to continue preparing students to take Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test next week.

“It’s much more conducive to quality learning today than it could have been,” Superintendent Gregory Wyman said.

Shepherd said parents were calling the district office about false rumors their children had brought home: “That the American flag had been burned — not true. That this had happened four or five times before — not true.”

The confrontation happened at the flagpole in front of the school’s Navy ROTC building, but Maj. Bill Parker, one of the organization’s advisers, said he did not know whether any of his students were involved.

He said ROTC provides diversity training to all its students, and about 20 percent of his NJROTC students are Hispanic.

About 17 percent of the overall student body is Latino, according to the district.

Wilson said he e-mailed teachers separately Thursday about the incident, but left it up to them to decide if and how they should address the issue in their classrooms.

He emphasized that six out of the school’s 1,618 students were involved in the flag fight, and many students might not have the same problems dealing with the racially charged immigration debate.

School flagpoles have been lightning rods across the country this week, including an incident in which a Houston high school principal was disciplined after he flew a Mexican flag underneath his campus’ U.S. and state flags.

A new political awareness among high school students has also been grabbing attention, as thousands of teenagers have walked out ofclasses to join rallies nationwide.

More than 100 students from Mesa’s Carson Junior High and Westwood High schools marched in protest on Mesa streets Tuesday.

Organizers of last Friday’s protest that drew 20,000 people of all ages and shut down miles of 24th Street in Phoenix are gearing up for another one on April 10.

During a news conference Wednesday, they begged high school students not to join in until after school lets out.

Former Mesa resident Mercedes Mercado-Ochoa, who attended the conference as a member of Unidos in Arizona, said many of the students are part of struggling families and may be the American-born children of illegal immigrants.

She said the way to get kids to protest responsibly is to provide them with positive role models, rather than encourage bad choices such as those made on both sides of the Apache Junction dispute.

“We need to be educating them on what César Chávez was all about — he wasn’t a boxer,” she said.

“And about Martin Luther King — what he wanted for the people.”
Ironically, Cesar Chavez, the iconic leader of the United Farmworkers, did not support illegal immigration. (See bio here.) He recognized illegal aliens as a bottomless source of cheap labor that could (and were) be used by employers to thwart his attempts to organize fellow farmworkers into a viable advocacy organization.
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