Calm Cinco de Mayo anticipated in Morgan Hill

Live Oak High School students from left, Daniel Galli, Austin

The one-year mark isn’t exactly an anniversary worthy of flowers
or candy. The Morgan Hill Unified School District is not planning
anything special and May 5, 2011 is expected to transpire like a
regular school day.
Unsuspecting and usually quiet Morgan Hill was sucked into the spotlight via nightly TV news programs last year on May 5 after the former principal at Live Oak High School sent four students wearing American-themed clothing home on the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo for compromising safety on campus.

The one-year mark isn’t exactly an anniversary worthy of flowers or candy. The Morgan Hill Unified School District is not planning anything special and May 5, 2011 is expected to transpire like a regular school day.

“The simplest way to explain it is the district doesn’t have a plan for Cinco de Mayo because that’s not the district’s position to plan Cinco de Mayo,” Superintendent Wes Smith said Wednesday. Each school campus and their student leadership groups are in charge of planning celebrations and activities – not the district office – that’s simply how it should be, Smith said.

“At all schools they have some history with different events,” Smith said. “We’re in the business of supporting students as they fundraise and participate in activities and learn.”

A lesson was learned, unintentionally, Smith said last year after former Live Oak principal Nick Boden assumed responsibility for giving four male students wearing American-theme clothing an ultimatum: turn your T-shirts inside-out or go home. Boden said he was concerned a fight could break out as many students that day were seen wearing Mexican-themed clothing and carrying Mexican flags. Some taunting ensued on campus, though no violence was reported.

The boys – Daniel Galli, Austin Carvalho, Matt Dariano and Dominic Maciel – went home with an unexcused absence (they were not suspended) and from there the eruption of media coverage ensued. Some of the boys and their parents were featured on national radio and TV shows depicting the day when they claimed their First Amendment rights were denied.

On May 6, Superintendent Smith released a statement that MHUSD did not condone Boden’s decision and students are free to wear patriotic clothing on any school day. Smith appeared on Bay Area TV stations when he called a press conference to address the incident and he also sent voicemail messages to parents outlining the district’s position. The following Tuesday, the MHUSD school board of trustees held a special meeting at Britton Middle School where more than 300 community members attended and dozens criticized Boden’s the decision. Thousands of emails poured into the district, Live Oak and the Times. Traffic was so heavy on the Morgan Hill Times website that it crashed and was off-line for several hours.

Street traffic bogged down Monterey Road the afternoon of May 5, when at least six Morgan Hill Police Department patrol cars caravanned an estimated 200 students and some adults through downtown to City Hall as they chanted “We want respect” and “Si se puede!”

MHPD Sgt. Jerry Neumayer said he isn’t anticipating a repeat of last year’s disruption.

“We haven’t heard about any problems. We’ve been working with the school district. We haven’t heard of any planned protests or issues at all, but we want to be ready,” Neumayer said.

Extra patrol officers will be on duty, Neumayer said, and on alert if needed for traffic control along East Main Street in front of Live Oak. MHPD’s school resource officer will be on campus Thursday, also.

“If it looks like we need traffic control, we’ll have patrols out there,” Neumayer said. Smith said if an influx of TV news vans set up in front of campus as they did last year, police officers are expected to direct traffic.

“We didn’t want the spectacle or the possible spectacle to interfere with the educational process. They are already busy right now studying, they just finished state testing and AP testing is soon then finals. While there are those people out there that would suggest we ought to have special units (about Cinco de Mayo), it really isn’t fitting into the curriculum right now. So no, we’re not going out of our way to teach any units here. It’s just business as usual,” Smith said.

Since the incident, the families of three of the four teens filed a civil rights lawsuit against MHUSD for what they claim was a violation of their sons’ First and 14th Amendment rights.

The students are setting the tone, Smith said – Live Oak’s new student leadership group “Voices” are organizing lunchtime celebrations that promote unity and a “common purpose,” said senior Will Gallo. The Voices club is planning to paint a mural of their logo by June – a Live Oak tree with its roots exposed and stretching outward – symbolic of their mission statement: “United at the roots, we are all different branches of the same tree.”

Smith said he is proud of the Voices and students who after May 5, “took back their school” from the judgment streaming online, on the radio and TV. Some students who were interviewed May 7 said their school was taken advantage of, used for political fodder and pigeon-holed as a divisive campus between white students and Mexican-American students. “Our school’s not known for racism,” sophomore Justina Piedra said May 7. “Our school is actually a really good school. Everybody gets along with everybody, except these past three days it’s been living hell for everybody.”

That Friday some students wore white and purple to show their solidarity with one another and as an outward expression of peace and unity.

“We’re getting kids ready for what we’re supposed to do and this is educating them while trying to protect them throughout. We have been working with the community leaders and school personnel and we feel like our kids are safe and that’s the important thing. And after that, we’ll let the kids decide,” Smith said.

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