YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Oxnard Students Urged to Boycott

An elementary school teacher active in Latino causes expects to anger parents and colleagues but says immigration is an important issue.

April 29, 2006|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Denis O'Leary has taught elementary school students for 17 years in El Rio and was elected to the Oxnard school board in 2004. He's passionate about the education of his students, many of whom come from impoverished immigrant families.

So why is O'Leary -- one of those rare teachers who wears a tie every day -- urging students to walk out of classrooms Monday as part of a nationwide boycott?

Because he must, said O'Leary, 46, an Oxnard resident who has long been a voice on civil rights issues affecting Latinos. He is married to a native of Chile, and the couple have three children who are bilingual.

In his opinion, some of the immigration reform proposals being discussed in Congress are so draconian that they will hurt not just illegal immigrants but the whole country.

"I see this as nothing less than a civil rights movement," O'Leary said. "It's down to the grass roots and, yes, I do support the boycott."

O'Leary's stand isn't the official position of the Oxnard school board, and it is inflaming educators who have spent the last week persuading students to stay on campus.

"There are other ways to make a political point without encouraging your kids to walk out of school," said Ojai schools Supt. Tim Baird.

Supt. Jody Dunlap, who heads up Oxnard's high schools, said she worries about students getting hurt while unsupervised. Potential problems make advocating walkouts not only irresponsible but conceivably dangerous, she said.

"The classroom is the forum for youngsters to talk about these issues, and I believe that very strongly," Dunlap said.

Schools are expected to be just one area hit hard by Monday's planned boycott and protests. Growers anticipate that Ventura County's $1.4-billion agricultural industry may also experience major work disruptions.

It's the height of the strawberry-picking season, and farmers need every pair of hands they can get, said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn.

Some growers are asking their workers to put in a full day Sunday and then take Monday off, Roy said. Others are planning barbecues and other incentives to reward those who show up Monday.

"It's hard to give them a day off," Roy said. "So the growers are asking that if they do not intend to appear on Monday, to advise the company so they can make arrangements."

Meanwhile, factories, shops, gardeners and cleaning services that employ large numbers of immigrants are making contingency plans.

"I have my bookkeeper coming in on Sunday so she can take Monday off," said a manager at Office Depot in Ventura who asked that his name not be used. "Without her, we can't count the money."

Daylong boycotts of work, schools and commerce are being organized nationwide to demonstrate the effect of immigrants, protest organizers said.

In Ventura County, a coalition of immigrant rights groups are planning several events to coincide with the boycotts. Starting at 8 a.m., a series of workshops called "People's School" will be held at Inlakech cultural center at 937 W. 5th St. in central Oxnard.

The classes will include instruction in immigrants' rights, workers' rights and Chicano art, said Jose Mareno, an organizer. At 5 p.m., protesters will assemble at the cultural center for a five-block march to Plaza Park, where a rally, speeches and entertainment will be held, Mareno said.

Organizers expect at least 1,000 participants for the march and rally, news of which is being spread by radio, fliers and word of mouth, Mareno said. He said the events would be peaceful.

"Our aim is: Don't buy anything, don't go to work or school," he said. "By joining the national boycott, we will show the importance of immigrants to life in Ventura County."

Educators said they could not predict how widespread the walkouts would be. In the Oxnard Union High School District, fewer than 1% of students left campus during immigration protests last month, Dunlap said.

Still, fear of sky-high absenteeism has prompted school administrators to meet with students, parents and teachers to find ways to keep kids in school. In Ojai, educators sent letters home urging parents to make sure their children are in class.

Oxnard's high schools are encouraging students to vent their opinions during forums at lunch. The boycotts come as several districts are preparing to take critical proficiency tests that may affect school funding. Schools also lose per-student funding every day a student is absent without a valid excuse.

O'Leary said he agonized over his decision to support a student walkout. He debated the issue with boycott organizers for weeks, arguing that it should not include students, he said.

But once it was decided to include students and the word went out, he decided to stand with protest organizers, O'Leary said. He said he also will not report for work Monday.

"If it causes a problem for me, I will have to stand up and take it," he said. "But I cannot be hypocritical."

Los Angeles Times Articles