Views of MCCCD students, official clash - East Valley Tribune: News

Views of MCCCD students, official clash

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Posted: Saturday, March 14, 2009 8:02 pm | Updated: 1:27 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Jerry Walker felt he was defending Arizona’s voters one day early last month as he heckled a college student through the halls of the U.S. Congress. The Maricopa County Community College District student receiving his scorn felt threatened.

Jerry Walker felt he was defending Arizona’s voters one day early last month as he heckled a college student through the halls of the U.S. Congress.

The Maricopa County Community College District student receiving his scorn felt threatened.

She broke into tears after Walker, a member of the district’s governing board, incessantly ridiculed her during her attempts to lobby for federal legislation to help illegal immigrant students.

“I began to pick up my pace in order to catch up with the group, while Mr. Walker began to verbally attack and pursue me down the hall,” the student wrote in her complaint against the board member and east Mesa resident.

The altercation became an unexpected lesson in political rancor for students on the school trip to Washington, D.C. It prompted a district harassment inquiry into Walker and has pitted him against the four other Maricopa district board members.

They censured Walker in an apology letter to Rep. Trent Frank’s legislative aide.

But Walker is unrepentant.

Rather, he argues that his political views and those of local taxpayers are the real victims.

MCCCD officials worry the program — the Student Public Policy Forum — that each year ferries students to the nation’s capital for an up-close look at policy making is at risk.

And perhaps rightly so; Walker pledges to eliminate the forum’s funding.

“Instead of it being an educational experience for the students, I interpret it as a lobbying effort,” he said of the Washington trips.

More than that, Walker alleges the entire program is a liberal conspiracy hatched by top district officials.

“This was a lobbying effort sponsored by the community college district to recruit students to do an end-run around the will of the voters of Maricopa County and the state of Arizona by trying to get the DREAM Act passed, to override Proposition 300,” Walker said.

The DREAM Act is legislation that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship through higher education for illegal immigrant students brought into the country as children. Prop. 300, approved by state voters in 2006, prohibits public universities and colleges from charging in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Walker has gone on the taxpayer-funded trips to Washington five times, every opportunity since his election to the board.

He’d repeatedly watched students argue for the DREAM Act during meetings with lawmakers in years past. Going into this year’s junket, Walker said he decided to do some lobbying of his own.

Walker is a Baptist minister-in-training who is active in East Valley politics, particularly in Republican circles.

Social issues, particularly his disapproval of homosexuality and illegal immigration, have caused him to clash with college employees and some board colleagues.

The incident in the Hart Senate Office Building was Walker’s first involving students.

As the students prepared for the trip, the forum’s teachers warned them they might encounter rude opposition to their ideas, even bigotry, in the nation’s capital, said Christopher Esteen, an Estrella Mountain Community College student.

“They gave us this whole spiel,” Esteen said. “And the whole time (in Washington) I’m thinking, 'They weren’t talking about anybody up here. They were talking about Jerry Walker.’”

A DREAM DEBATED

The forum’s scheduled events for Feb. 10 started smoothly, even friendly.

Sixteen students from across MCCCD’s 10 colleges split into groups to meet with top congressional staffers from Arizona’s congressional delegation. Four of the district’s five board members joined the students and a handful of Maricopa’s top administrators.

Walker chatted with the male students in his assigned group, telling mildly raunchy jokes, said Gabriel Bernal, a South Mountain Community College student.

“He was hitting it off with us pretty good,” Esteen said. “And he didn’t know what we were rallying for, I guess, 'cause as soon as it was the DREAM Act, he was acting shocked.”

That realization came during the group’s first meeting of the day with Bobby J. Cornett, Rep. Trent Frank’s legislative aide.

There were so many students and district officials, and the congressman’s office was so cramped, that Cornett said he had to move the meeting to a downstairs hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building. From his perspective, Cornett said the discussion ranged from financial aid to the DREAM Act and was productive, warm and enjoyable.

The other participants don’t agree.

The female student, who the district refuses to identify, said in her complaint that Walker continuously interrupted her presentation on the act. Walker allegedly interjected comments including, “you are wrong,” “that is not true,” and “I do not agree with you.”

Esteen partnered with the female student on the presentation.

Walker also interrupted him, Esteen said, prompting Chad Douwstra, the forum’s director and a district lobbyist, to try to intercede.

Walker went silent for a time, glaring at the students as they spoke in favor of the DREAM Act, Esteen said. “He sat there with his arms folded and shook his head with this look as if I killed his first born.”

Walker disputes that. He contends he made only one comment to correct an inaccuracy during the students’ presentation.

But after that meeting finished, Walker went back to speak with Cornett to apologize for what he characterized as the students’ rude behavior.

Cornett said Walker’s comment left him confused.

“I found it, you know, kind of strange that (Walker) would apologize for something I didn’t even think happened,” he said.

The legislative aide would receive another apology weeks later, when the rest of the board sent him a letter criticizing Walker’s conduct. “Please know that the behavior of one does not reflect nor represent the professional nature of those of us who serve on the governing board …,” said the letter, signed by every MCCCD elected official, except Walker.

"SHE WAS CRYING A LOT"

Cornett’s confusion is understandable.

Witnesses say the conflict did not reach its crescendo until the next meeting, with Sen. Jon Kyl’s legislative aide, had concluded. Walking out of Kyl’s office, Esteen said that Walker started to accuse the female student of lying during her presentation, calling the DREAM Act “stupid” and the student “dumb.”

Walker denied using such harsh language. But the governing board member acknowledged that he tried to correct the student, specifically arguing that an overwhelming majority of Arizona voters essentially rejected the DREAM Act by passing Prop. 300.

The female student attempted to diffuse the increasingly tense situation, according to her complaint. She responded to Walker that he has a right to his opinion, but she disagrees.

Student witnesses said that response only pushed Walker to make his case more loudly.

As it continued, Walker “began to yell at me and tell me that he did (not) care how I felt about his opinion and that 65 (percent) of the citizens of Arizona agreed with him and that was all that mattered to him,” the student’s complaint said.

Walker told the Tribune that he informed the female student that 71 percent, not 65 percent, of voters approved Prop. 300.

The female student then lost her composure. She made her way to a public bathroom.

Esteen said he raised his hands, essentially trying to call a timeout. Mike Greene, a chaperone and student life director at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, took Walker aside.

Greene declined to comment; Douwstra, the other chaperone, referred questions to the district spokesman.

The female student “was crying, I mean immediately, she was crying a lot,” Bernal said.

Word of the altercation spread quickly from one Maricopa district group to another. When it reached Debra Pearson, a newly elected board member, she said she went in search of the student.

“I just walked up to her and took her into my arms and held her and said, 'Are you OK?’” Pearson said. “And she just cried.”

TROUBLE AT HOME

Walker has been searching for allies in his fight against the student trips, from district board members to state lawmakers.

As she campaigned for a board seat, Pearson said Walker convinced her that the student forum was a liberal conspiracy. Close inspection of the program showed otherwise.

“It was none of this wild-eyed socialist organization,” she said.

Colleen Clark, the board president who Walker campaigned for in 2006, also supports the program.

“The understanding in public policy and advocacy that it provides students, the research and training and verbal presentation, I think all of that is positive,” Clark said.

Each fall, the district accepts about 20 students into the program. They study state and national issues, like tax structure, in addition to training in public speaking, said Steve Helfgot, a district vice chancellor. The extracurricular work culminates in the Washington trip, where students can meet with policymakers and lobby on higher education issues.

Numerous district officials, often including the entire governing board, join the students at a massive community college conference. The officials set out a laundry list of policy positions that students can choose to lobby for, Helfgot said

“Nobody is compelled to advocate for something that they disagree with,” Helfgot said.

This year’s trip cost county taxpayers approximately $30,000, finance records show.

Students should pay their own way to Washington, Walker said, if they want to lobby for legislation like the DREAM Act.

However, Walker’s involvement in the trips is now in question. The student complaint asks that he be barred from involvement in the student forum.

Walker is an elected official, rather than an employee, making it unclear what action MCCCD can take against Walker if he is found to have harassed the female student.

Asked for specifics about the complaint process, board president Clark replied, “I won’t speak to that.”

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