FILLMORE — It was this small farm town's shining, made-for-television moment: a birthday homecoming celebration for Joanne Main Kemp, Fillmore's most famous daughter and the wife of GOP vice presidential hopeful Jack Kemp.
So how is it, residents asked five days later, that things went so wrong? And how, they wondered, did at least seven Fillmore High School students wind up suspended and a teacher end up facing reprimand in connection with the folksy birthday bash?
It's complicated, school administrators, students and residents said Wednesday.
"This is not what Fillmore High School is about," said Principal Lynn Johnson, who Wednesday suspended or otherwise disciplined a dozen students who heckled the Kemps at the noontime rally and then returned late to school, against teachers' orders. "I think the most important thing is we're ashamed and we're embarrassed. When something like this happens, it takes you back 10 steps."
The whole incident is a black eye for Fillmore, said resident Jesse Segovia, who owns Segovia's Market on Central Avenue, the town's quaint main street.
"I do believe the kids did something wrong," Segovia said. "I don't believe in any violence or protesting; it doesn't get anything done. Especially when you have a pretty little town like we have."
On the day of the City Hall rally--billed as a celebration of Joanne Kemp's 60th birthday--the town was out in full force. A school band played, 1,000 Fillmore students attended and many people waved Dole-Kemp signs.
But the mood at the noontime rally soured when a few dozen teenage protesters booed, heckled the Kemps and shouted "Chicano power!"
Three of the teens--one of them a Fillmore High student--were cited by police and released. In the thick of the protest were teacher Joe Torres and about 20 students from his Chicano studies class.
Setting aside their disdain for Republican support of Proposition 209, which would end affirmative action in government hiring and education, the students had left school expecting a nonpartisan birthday bash, said two students from the class who were not suspended. What they found defied their expectations and incensed them.
"We didn't expect it to be a political thing," said senior Ralph Laureano, 16. "So it made me angry when I saw little kids given political signs. Little kids don't know nothing about political things."
Fillmore schools Supt. Mario Contini said, "We were promised by the campaign workers that students wouldn't be given political signs, that they would just hold 'Welcome home' signs." Had school officials known that volunteers would give Dole-Kemp posters to students, the children probably would not have attended, he added.
To make matters worse, Ralph and classmate Josue Cruz said, the Chicano students were taunted by people in the audience and told "to go back to Mexico."
"The anger took us to some point," Ralph said, his words trailing off. "And we started yelling and saying, 'Chicano Power.' We made some mistakes."
Added 17-year-old Josue: "But they have to admit that they made some mistakes too."
The students acted independently, said Ralph and Josue, neither of whom were suspended. Torres, the teacher, who could not be reached for comment, did not incite students to action, as many townspeople have speculated.
According to Johnson and Contini, Torres nonetheless fouled up. Unlike other students and teachers, Torres and his class did not notify school brass that they would be attending the rally. As a result, Torres left his room when he should have been teaching. For not following school policies, he will receive a punishment ranging from a reprimand to a 15-day suspension without pay.
Among the 12 students being punished, seven have been suspended, and more suspensions may yet be announced, school officials said.
But the protest is not what students and teacher Torres are being punished for, Principal Johnson stressed.
"This is not about a teacher organizing something," she said. "In my heart I don't believe [Torres] organized this. This is not about kids holding signs, chanting or protesting--as American citizens, they're allowed to do that. This is about kids who were willfully defiant. When they were asked to return to school, they didn't."
The punishment doesn't sit right with one student who was suspended. "We didn't do anything wrong--I mean, getting back late to class?" the student said. "Only Latino students were suspended, but there were a lot of other students who were late."
To this student--who spoke on the condition of anonymity--and some other townspeople, the incident is fraught with a deeper racial meaning. While the majority of the population--and the school system--is Latino, most town leaders are white. Add to this the fact that Fillmore was the first U.S. city to pass an English-only law, and you have a volatile ethnic mix, some say.
While those concerns are valid, said 75-year-old Robert Procter outside a Fillmore hardware store, a protest was uncalled for. "I think that people of that sort are just shooting themselves in the foot," the semiretired Santa Paula rancher said. "They're doing more harm to their own cause than to the people that they disagree with."