Tanque Verde parents want superintendent to resign over racism

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 11:07 PM MST|Updated: Apr. 1, 2022 at 10:30 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Some families are now calling for two Tanque Verde administrators to resign.

They’re saying the district has had serious issues of racism for years, disputing leadership claims that the pandemic is behind the rise in bad behavior.

A number of families have reached out to KOLD News 13 after last week’s investigation, saying they are relieved that a family has finally came forward on what’s been happening in the district for years.

Racism has been rampant, they said, with little or no effort to stop it.

Now they’ve launched a letter campaign to the board, calling for the superintendent and assistant principal of Emily Gray Junior High School to step down.

Another biracial family has come forward. One of the children, who asked not to be identified out of fear of being targeted on campus, has spoken to KOLD about how the years of racist bullying have taken their toll.

“It really pushed me to a darker place because I didn’t feel seen and I didn’t feel heard,” the Tanque Verde student said.

The thought of suicide crept into the student’s mind and grades dropped dramatically as the student’s family sent a flurry of emails trying to get the district to stop students from harassing their children.

“They knew the racial slurs were going on and other forms of bullying,” the student’s mother said.

The family reported students had mocked their children’s skin color and made them feel that the racism was just a normal part of life.

“I tried to hide everything I could. I was really ashamed of my last name for a long time. And it was hard because, that’s something you shouldn’t be ashamed of, but I’ve been made to feel that way,” the student said. “It just seems really normalized in the school district. It feels like I’m alone, because it doesn’t feel like they’re doing anything. And I feel like whenever I try to talk to them, I come out where it feels like I’ve done something wrong and then I’m making a big deal out of something.”

And that feeling, of tolerance and acceptance of acts of racism, resonated with minority families throughout the district. Among those were the Simmers, who took a public stand last week against racism, an issue the district did not deny.

They started seeing signs about five years ago in elementary, junior high, and high school.

“Issues would be brought forward that were familiar with and the administration would hear them, would acknowledge them, but not take any actions with them,” Steven Simmers said.

Amy Heacock, a Tanque Verde parent who is Hispanic, said she realized how isolated the Simmers must have felt when they decided to go public.

“And the reality is that we’ve all experienced this. We’ve all had concerns,” she said.

She says she’s emailed teachers, administration and the board about the lack of diversity in schools and racist acts for five and a half years. In one case -- her son, working on an assignment to create a family tree, became a target.

She said a student told him, “Now we’re going to build the wall and your great-grandfather would never have gotten here.”

Heacock immediately emailed school officials but, she said, she believes the district has the tendency to sweep these complaints under the rug.

The Simmers have asked administrators for a stronger public message that racism will not be tolerated.

Families have heard from staff and administrators the district is deeply divided, and any policy change that addresses racism is a challenge. Superintendent Scott Hagerman said last week he finds himself in a tough balancing act.

“We need to get site stakeholder input because we’re going to have a bunch of different people that have a bunch of different opinions on things,” he said.

But for Heacock, there is no room for division.

“There are not two sides to racism. There is just racism is not acceptable, and that’s been difficult,” she said.

Vieri Tenuta, one of five Tanque Verde board members, said he’s disappointed with how Hagerman has chosen to handle the issue. And Tenuta questions the superintendent’s competence and capability as this point.

“I would say that it’s embarrassing. We don’t have to argue whether or not racism is bad, right? We know that racism is wrong and we shouldn’t be complicit or active in that,” he said. “And so what we need to do is we need to just make sure that we are communicating to our students and to our staff that it’s not acceptable and not welcome here.”

Now Heacock, along with a group of families, have launched a letter campaign to the board. They’re asking for not only policy changes, but a change in leadership, starting at the top with Hagerman.

She said he has “cowered and conceded” to political pressure rather than make a strong stand against racism.

The families are asking, she said, for the resignations of both Hagerman and Emily Gray Junior High assistant principal Beth Egan, who is currently on administrative leave.

The superintendent has apologized for Egan’s use of the “N” word while addressing a behavior issue.

Superintendent Hagerman and the board president have both provided KOLD with letters in response.

Neither letter addressed the resignation request, but Hagerman said important facts and context about the Simmers family are missing from the report from last week. He also wrote that he can’t go further into detail because conversations with the Simmers are private, sensitive matters. Note: FERPA laws dictate districts cannot disclose student information because of privacy rights.

“The board and district leadership are now taking steps to clearly communicate how staff and students are expected to behave,” Hagerman wrote.

The following is Hagerman’s full statement:

And in board president Anne Velosa’s letter, she wrote, “We have not received a sobering lesson as recent revalations have highlighted gaps in our policies and practices that have led to students feeling unsafe at school”. “That is a past failure. it will not be a future reality.”

It was only Velosa’s letter that clearly stated, “we do not tolerate racism.”

“This isn’t going to end just because somebody came forward and somebody gets on the news and talks to somebody. It ends when we are actively anti-racist,” Tenuta said.

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