Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are not a reflection of the views of Paw Prints as a whole. They are the sole views of the author. Paw Prints Weekly celebrates a diverse audience and staff, and it supports the declaration of duties and rights of a Journalist per the U.S. Constitution.
As another concerned mother’s plea is aggressively shunned by the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District (HLPUSD) board of education, this begs the question: do people’s voices still hold a seat in our school board meetings?
Ms. Ramirez, the parent of a student at Sunset Elementary School, made a complaint against a staff member to the HLPUSD board of education during a meeting on Nov. 17. Since Ms. Ramirez was less confident in her English skills, she gave her speech in Spanish. However, instead of being offered additional time or assistance, witnesses stated that Ms. Ramirez was silenced by the board president, escorted out of the meeting by law enforcement, and described as “disruptive” and “intimidating” in a statement issued by the district superintendent.
When leading figures of our school community overtly reject the public’s genuine concerns at an open meeting, the board meetings become an empty spectacle of democracy — amplifying the voices of the powerful at the expense of the people it has sworn to serve.
While HLPUSD has accused Ms. Ramirez of “refus[ing] to leave the podium after reaching their maximum allocated speaking time” (according to the statement issued by the district superintendent), meeting attendee Timothy Fox’s memory of the altercation says otherwise — indicating false accusation and the hostile behavior of board president Jeffery De La Torre.
“Ms. Ramirez was given six minutes to speak. But since a person normally has three minutes to speak and two people have yielded their time, Ms. Ramirez should have had nine minutes to speak. I have attended many board meetings, and speakers routinely go over their allotted times,” Fox recalled. “Mr. De La Torre cut her off and told her to sit down when she began to mention the specific name of the employee. When Ms. Ramirez remained at the podium and audience member Fernando Solis asked for Ms. Ramirez to be allowed to conclude her speech, Mr. De La Torre called the security.”
Then in a vain attempt to restore order, Mr. De La Torre would also be heard pounding his gavel and yelling ‘you are disrupting my meeting’ at the protesting audience that simply requested Ms. Ramirez’s full complaint to be heard. In response, members of the audience chanted “this is our meeting,” reminding us that board meetings are people’s meetings, in contrast to Mr. De La Torre’s assertion.
Additionally, note that the altercation took place during a two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting with the purpose of gathering public concerns and keeping official decisions in check for the public good – yet a sincere, helpless parent was forced off the podium for naming a staff who has escaped consequences despite repeatedly sending sick students back to classrooms without parental notice and insisting students and parents to only speak English.
Sharing a similar experience of censorship by the HLPUSD, board candidate Elke Tapia reflects on the threats she faced and explains the penalties that Ms. Ramirez currently faces.
“I complained about an employee in the district. So [the district] served me a paper that banned me from attending a meeting unannounced and threatened me that if I refused to sign it, I [would] be removed from the district.” Tapia says. “They tried to keep me quiet. And now they served Ms. Ramirez papers too and she is not allowed to go to the office at the school her son attends.”
Moreover, the meeting entered recess as Mr. De La Torre and some other board members left the meeting after the intense shouting match, leaving less than a quorum for the meeting to proceed. This left Ms. Ramirez unable to finish her speech or defend herself. Though HLPUSD attempted to properly address the incident in a closing statement at the follow-up meeting on Nov. 21, the attempt was futile: As the head of the board, Mr. De La Torre offers no apology for his threatening behavior, paints himself as a victim of “harassment and intimidation”, and excuses the lack of professionalism by placing the blame on a sincere parent and a justice-seeking audience.
Disappointed by the board’s impatient attitude, public advocate Samuel Brown Vazquez leaves his remarks on the incident and the address given by Mr. De La Torre.
“[Mr.] De La Torre threatened to dispatch [school] police to escort the speaker and the audience for disorderly conduct, but they only asked for their first amendment rights to be respected,” Vazquez comments. “In the virtual follow-up meeting on Zoom, De La Torre spoke for 5 minutes and attacked the speaker – the district has systematically denied us the right to speak up.”
Furthermore, as HLPUSD’s Guiding Principles (printed on HLPUSD’s official website) anaphorically recognizes that “students, parents, staff, and community have a shared responsibility” to better our school, does avoidance of constructive criticism and responsibility adhere to these principles? Or are these so-called principles merely another sugarcoat for shallow promises of democracy?
As I pen the conclusion to this sharply critical article from the perspective of a student of HLPUSD, some may say that my claims of oppression of criticism are self-contradictory — for that, I am allowed to publish such a censorious piece on school domains. However, humans are prone to error, regardless of carelessness or ill-intent; and though it is my editorial opinion that the altercation of Nov. 17 is unjust and oppressive, it is also my greater responsibility to ring a bell of reflection and change as a part of the aforementioned “shared responsibility” to improve HLPUSD. Thus, borrowing from English poet Alexander Pope’s famous quote: As “To err, is human; to improve, is divine,” let people’s voice occupy a seat in our board meetings – for our shared responsibility to advise, change, and improve.