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VENTURA COUNTY POSTSCRIPT

Suspension Threat Lingers for Teacher at '96 Kemp Rally

Education: Joe Torres, who took his Fillmore High class to what became a protest, awaits ruling on his role in the aftermath.

September 08, 1997|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FILLMORE — As classes resumed at Fillmore High School, Chicano studies teacher Joe Torres hoped the fallout over student protests at a Jack Kemp political rally would finally be behind him.

But it isn't.

A year ago, the veteran educator was pulled into the controversy that erupted after protesters marred a rally for the Republican vice presidential candidate held on the steps of Fillmore City Hall.

The demonstration made news across the nation, while locally it touched off angry reaction. Many residents said the protesters embarrassed the small farm town, inviting shame and ridicule during what was supposed to be one of Fillmore's finest moments.

In blistering commentary at community meetings and in local newspapers, townsfolk traded charges and countercharges of racism. So vehement were the attacks that the Ventura County Grand Jury launched an investigation to sort out the truth.

While the finger-pointing raged on, much of the blame came to settle on Torres, a 22-year teaching veteran who accompanied his Chicano studies class to the rally.

Some of those students joined the protests, and a handful earned suspensions for failing to return to class when ordered to do so.

But even though a new school year has started and the incident has faded from memory, Torres has been unable to clear his name.

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The Santa Paula native still faces suspension, accused by school district officials of insubordination and abandoning his students by leaving the rally and returning to school without them.

"It's still hanging over my head," said Torres, who long ago appealed the disciplinary action and has been waiting since May for an arbitrator to decide whether he must serve a three-day suspension.

"I thought we would have started the new school year with this thing resolved," he added. "It's almost surreal. It's just one of the craziest things that has ever happened to me in my life."

As set out in the district's contract with its teachers, Torres appealed his suspension in early May to an independent arbitrator based in Orange County. The arbitrator has the final say, but neither Torres nor district officials expected the decision to take so long.

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"It can take an indefinite period of time, but personally I'd like to see this resolved as soon as possible," Supt. Mario Contini said. "It's been emotionally difficult for a lot of people. You want to get these things taken care of quickly so people are not in limbo."

On the day of the City Hall rally, a little more than a month before the presidential election, the tiny town of Fillmore was out in force.

Billed as a birthday celebration for Kemp's wife, Joanne, a Fillmore native, a marching band played while 1,000 students from across the city filled the crowd.

Also on hand were dozens of protesters, who heckled the Kemps and shouted "Chicano power" as the couple rode into town on an old locomotive draped in red, white and blue.

Skirmishes broke out, first between protesters and Kemp supporters and later between protesters and sheriff's deputies mounted on horseback.

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According to the grand jury report, Torres asked his students to return with him to class before the event concluded. Three students joined him, but others refused, the report said.

In the end, half a dozen high school students were disciplined, one for hitting someone with a sign, the others for refusing to return to school.

As for Torres, he said school district officials initially planned to suspend him for 15 days without pay. Yet days before the matter went to arbitration, Torres said, that penalty was reduced to three days with pay.

Despite the show of leniency, Torres proceeded with arbitration and has been waiting for a ruling ever since.

"I did nothing wrong," said Torres, 51, who still teaches Chicano studies and runs a program at the high school to help underrepresented students get into four-year colleges. "I think what happened was that everyone got caught up in this emotional situation and I somehow became the focus. I think a lot of people thought I was guilty by association."

At issue is whether Torres took his students to the rally without authorization and whether he should have stayed behind when they refused to return to school.

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In hindsight, Torres said he could have checked more closely with school officials about attending the rally and about what to do when students refused to go back to class.

But he said any error in judgment he made was dwarfed by the district's error in allowing about 1,000 students to attend an event that they should have known would be highly partisan and politically charged.

That contention was supported, in part, by the grand jury probe, which concluded that school officials "failed to understand the aggressiveness with which national political events are staged to attract media attention."

The grand jury also concluded that the Fillmore school district was not racially motivated when it disciplined the Latino students who took part in the protests.

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