About 50 students ditching class to protest illegal immigration legislation Friday morning marched past the building at Main Street and Sirrine where the top officials of the Mesa Unified School District have their offices.
Nothing happened. The mostly junior high students seemed oblivious to the school district logo on the building and the concrete monument to those who have been “Educating Mesa since 1878.”
School officials were not oblivious, trailing the students with security vehicles or listening in on the security detail’s radios.
But they also weren’t restraining students who walked out of classes.
District spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss said officials were concerned doing so would create an even bigger disturbance on campus.
“What we told our staff was to encourage kids to stay in school, that they need to be in the classroom learning, but if they chose to leave the campus on their own, we would not bar them from doing that,” she said.
The procession grew to about 100 students when it marched past Mesa Junior High School again that afternoon, as Mesa police stood guard at campus driveways while the school was under a “perimeter lockdown,” designed to keep marching students off of other campuses.
Kino Junior High School was under lockdown Friday morning, students said, though it wasn’t clear whether the students understood they could have walked past the police without a problem.
Kino seventh-grader Sarahi Martinez, 12, said she dodged the officers at her school early Friday morning by leaving before classes started: “I dropped my backpack and left.”
She said she was defying parental as well as police authority. “My dad didn’t want me to go because he was afraid they would do something to us, but the Mexicans have to support each other,” she said.
Police Sgt. Chuck Trapani said a dozen officers — 10 school resource officers assigned to various campuses and two motor officers — were involved in securing campuses or controlling traffic around the crowd at some point during the day.
He said this did not amount to a police escort for the group.
“We had a contingent of officers who were there maintaining the peace and ensuring the security of those students who chose to walk out,” he said.
Bareiss said that all students who chose to march would get an unexcused absence on their records, which would result in whatever disciplinary action the school has already set as its policy.
A notice to parents in English and Spanish on the school district’s Web site reads, in part: “We hope that parents will talk with their children and encourage them to stay in school, just as we are doing.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said Friday he didn’t agree with Mesa’s position that it was better to allow students to leave.
“(Other school districts) have been locking the gates and bringing in security guards to keep the kids from jumping the fence,” he said.
Immigration reform has exploded in the public consciousness this week, as legislators debate solutions ranging from making all illegal immigrants felons to offering those here now a chance at citizenship.
Large and small student demonstrations opposing legislation to increase penalties for illegal immigration have taken center stage this week. Many say they are the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
But school officials are under the gun at the same time, as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards tests will be given to nearly all students next week.
District diversity specialist Cliff Moon said students’ overall education is more important than just being around for the AIMS test, and Hispanic community leaders could use today’s César Chávez holiday peace march in Mesa as another platform to get that word out.
Moon said his own history illustrates that youthful idealism is not new, and it can be hard to tell where informed action ends and adolescent exuberance begins.
“It makes me think back to the ’60s, when high school kids were out marching in the civil rights movement or protesting the Vietnam War,” he said.
“When they were marching, were those kids any better informed about the issues? I don’t know. I was one of them.”