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Retaliation Alleged for Teaching on Iraq War

August 26, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Among the students at San Fernando High School, a sun-baked campus in a poor, mostly Latino area on the northern fringe of the San Fernando Valley, the issue of military recruiting looms large.

The school sends hundreds more students to college than it does into the military, but still, according to senior Erika Preciado, "more recruiters are here for the military than for colleges."

The 17-year-old is co-editor of the school newspaper, El Tigre. In her journalism class this week, almost all of the students said they had been contacted by a military recruiter, and several said recruiters had been guest speakers in their classes or had talked to them at school events, such as one where recruiters brought a chin-up bar onto campus.

Seven of the 28 students said they knew someone who had died in Iraq while serving in the U.S. military.

The issue concerns the school librarian, Kitty Kroger, so much that she banned recruiters from placing their literature in the library and has waged a campaign to "make kids fully aware of what it would mean to be in the military."

Now the issue figures in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District by a San Fernando High teacher who says the principal retaliated against him because he urged students to think critically about the military and the war in Iraq.

Alberto Gutierrez, a 33-year-old social studies teacher who is known on campus as a passionate educator with a left-wing tilt, says in a suit filed this week that after he "offered objective discussion

The teacher says he received only glowing performance reviews until two years ago, after he began teaching about the war.

At the same time, according to the suit, Rodriguez didn't object when another teacher required students to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, designed by the Department of Defense to measure aptitude for military service.

The suit contends that Rodriguez "strongly supports the United States' involvement in the war and adamantly opposes any other opinions."

Rodriguez, who has since been promoted to director of secondary services for one of Los Angeles Unified's local district headquarters in the Valley, denied those claims. He said he limited military recruiters' presence on campus to Wednesdays at lunch.

And he said his concerns about the teacher "weren't specific to the war in Iraq." Rather, he said, he spoke to Gutierrez because of complaints from parents that the teacher had required students to visit a cafe in Sylmar to watch movies including "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's 2004 antiwar film, and "Crash," which won the Academy Award this year for best picture.

District policy requires that students have their parents' permission to see such adult-oriented movies, Rodriguez said. He added that Gutierrez is a committed teacher and called it unfortunate that he had chosen to sue.

Gutierrez responded that he did not require students to visit Tia Chucha's Cafe; he only offered them an extra-credit opportunity.

As for "Fahrenheit 9/11," Gutierrez said, he showed it to students in his classroom in response to unannounced and uninvited visits from military recruiters.

"I had military recruiters walk into my class two times in one week," he said. After those visits, he said, he decided to show the movie, which includes scenes of recruiters -- one of whom was later killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq -- before allowing recruiters to address his class. He also said Rodriguez placed limits on the recruiters only after Gutierrez and other teachers exerted pressure.

Gutierrez, who grew up in North Hills, said he was once affiliated with a gang but has dedicated himself to improving conditions in his community and at San Fernando High.

"As a teacher, my goal is to bring awareness and make the connection between the textbook and the real world," he said.

Military recruiters' visits to high schools have led to disputes around the country in the last few years, with some teachers and parents complaining that they use overly aggressive tactics and target schools with low-income and minority students.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act allows the Pentagon to gather the home addresses and telephone numbers of public school students.

An opt-out clause lets parents sign a form preventing information about their child from being released.

In addition, the law says any school that allows college recruiters must also allow military recruiters if it wants to keep its federal funding.

At San Fernando High, Kroger, the librarian and sponsor of the now-defunct Peace Club, said she was taken aback when some of her students talked of joining the military and bombing Middle Eastern countries.

"I think we should have separation of the school and the military," she said. "It's become much too enmeshed in the school."

But Kroger said she blames the federal law that allows recruiters on campus -- not the former principal.

"I personally haven't seen any crackdown on dissent," she said.

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