Adam Garcia attempted to fly a Mexican flag at his high school last March. Instead, he was arrested, jailed for a night, placed under house arrest for a month and expelled from Apache Junction High School in a highprofile incident that came amid protests and marches as the national debate over immigration swept the nation.
Now, six months later, Garcia sits at home, not attending classes anywhere. Meanwhile, he says, the white student who grabbed the Mexican flag and burned it was allowed to stay in school.
“They’re racist,” Garcia said. “That other kid, he got out free with nothing on him.”
Apache Junction Unified School District officials, citing a federal privacy law, refused to say whether the other student was expelled.
But district spokeswoman Carol Shepherd indicated that previous discipline problems can contribute to a decision to expel a student. Garcia, now 17, acknowledges he previously received an on-campus suspension. And his court files show one prior arrest for disorderly conduct, which he said was the result of a fight between him and his father.
“The actions taken on all students were appropriate in the disciplinary process,” Shepherd said.
Garcia’s mother, Emily Hernandez, disagrees.
“Adam was doing nothing wrong at all,” said Hernandez, an Apache Junction nurse. “He just was raising the flag, there’s no crime in that. I feel proud of my son.”
Despite the expulsion, she said she wants her son to finish school.
Garcia, who was born in the United States, could enroll in a charter school or in another district. But he said his lack of transportation means he needs to attend classes within walking distance of his home.
He also said he wants to return to his old school to prove he did nothing wrong.
“I want to graduate,” he said. “Hardly anyone has graduated in my family. I want to go back to learn how to read more.”
The incident began on the morning of March 30, when Garcia went to campus before the American flag was raised and attempted to fly a Mexican flag.
Students from the school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a group of students exploring military careers, took the flag down. Police reports show Garcia attempted a second time to raise the flag, but one student grabbed it and set it afire.
Police said a shoving match ensued, and both boys were arrested and taken to the Pinal County juvenile detention center in Florence. The ROTC student, who is white, was placed under a 6 p.m. curfew until his court date, while Garcia was placed under house arrest until his.
Court records show both were placed on probation.
Garcia was required to complete 40 hours of community service and write an apology to the school and the community — for something he said he never did.
“That letter hurt me,” he said. “I felt ashamed writing it, I felt ashamed for my family. I feel like I let my mom down.”
He said he was trying to make a point last spring, not cause a fight. He described a school with racial tensions simmering under the surface.
“Everyone keeps on complaining about Mexicans coming here,” Garcia said. “They don’t know I’m American. I was born in the United States. I wanted to put up the flag to show everyone that no matter where we’re from, we should respect everyone.”
It’s not illegal to fly the flag of another country, said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. She said the question comes down to whether or not students were causing a dangerous atmosphere.
She is concerned that some schools give harsher punishments for offenses that relate to speech issues than those that do not, which could have been the case with Garcia, she said.
“What we saw a lot of times when we had the immigration march walkouts, for example, was that some students were given harsher penalties because they walked out for the immigration debate, than they would have been given if they had just walked out on a different day,” she said.