Tim Steller’s column: Brawl, arrest overshadow Tucson High’s qualities

Quarrels were a common feature of life at Tucson High during the first months of the school year when students returned from the pandemic year.

Every few days, a couple of children broke away, the students whipped out their phones to take videos, and school monitors went in shortly. The frequency was alarming, but it did not disturb the day for most students in the huge high school at North Euclid Avenue and East Sixth Street.

Then, sometime in October or November, it calmed down and the school came to a routine without regular quarrels, the students told me. The relative calm lasted until May 3.

Almost the riot that broke out that day shocked many students, parents and staff, partly because it involved dozens of students and a parent, but also because it broke the calm. The violent videos that were spread all over the world even showed on news sites like the England-based Daily Mailshowed the school in a bad light that many parents and students say it does not deserve.

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Then, on Wednesday, a counselor from Tucson High, who resigned last week, was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a minor. Tucson police announced the arrest on Friday afternoon as I wrote this column. The hits just keep coming.

While many outsiders see Tucson High Magnet School as a difficult school to avoid, students and parents tend to think of it as a place with certain problems that do not overwhelm its good qualities.

In that sense, Tucson High is very similar to Tucson itself. It has a gross reputation which, frankly, is based on reality, but which lacks the good qualities of the place that holds us to it.

I speak from experience, as the parent of a student from Tucson High, but I have been looking around for more than a week now and discovered that my own experience is very similar to others. People appreciate the magnetic programs in STEM and performing arts, the many career and technical education programs, such as the automotive industry and graphic design, and the wide range of options that come with such an extensive school.

“I feel that these negative, violent things are being wiped out more than the school’s best,” said Gisela Contreras, a senior vice president of the student body. “I still feel safe here, despite all the fights that have happened. It was like a breach of judgment at school. Tucson High is a really good school.”

Her classmate Zakaria Odr, also a class officer as treasurer, added: “It was 100% a deviant.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. Three students and a teacher made statements at a board meeting in the Tucson Unified School District last week, asking officials to do more to ensure school safety.

The quarrels were unusually violent

As police and school officials say, two brothers had been in a fight with other students at Tucson High on Monday, May 2nd. Riots broke out on social media after school, and when the brothers arrived at Tucson High the next day, school officials called their father to come and pick them up.

When he was going to go with his sons, the school officials asked him to go out through a side door so as not to go out into the yard where hundreds of students ate lunch. In any case, the man went with his sons into the yard and quickly got into a fight with the same students that his children had fought with before.

Of course, the students whipped out their cameras and the fights that ensued were unusually violent. Students and the parent were hit in the head and beaten while lying on the ground, and the father put his hands on a lying student’s neck. Security police sprayed pepper gel and Tucson police flooded the campus, some carrying long, threatening, less deadly weapons.

As Odr saw it, it seemed that students who had unrelated conflicts took advantage of the moment to start fighting, which spread the violence.

In the aftermath, many parents and students complained about the use of pepper spray, which of course did not only affect fighters.

Maria Luna told me that her son in ninth grade was having lunch with other baseball players and was preparing to leave school for a match when the quarrel broke out. The crowd ran towards them.

“Everything got going. That’s how he was pepper sprayed and trampled on,” she said.

His iPhone and airpods broke, he had a scratched elbow and knees, and she took him to an emergency room for the pepper spray in his eyes. He was prescribed eye drops.

“I love the school, I love the staff,” she said. “I do not blame the teachers. I blame the parents.”

To expose others to danger

The parent most directly involved, Willie Smith, has taken on most of the blame in news reports. He was accused of a serious crime – interference or disruption of an educational institution. And in the complaint, the police said that he was consciously involved in the fight, that he said before entering the yard: “If it goes down, it goes down here.”

But while officials blamed Smith’s decision, his sister and many others claimed that Smith was defending children who had been bullied. This version, spread by social media posts, claimed that one of Smith’s sons had special needs, the other son had defended him and Smith defended them both.

The sister, Rosalina Martinez, told me last Friday that she could no longer talk about the situation because of the trial, and she forwarded questions to Smith. I heard nothing from him. But on social media, parents claimed that Smith did the right thing by defending his children, even if it was physically. They used a familiar phrase for a hashtag: #FreeWillie.

As a Tucson High parent, I do not have to agree. I can imagine a self-interested logic in his actions, but by going out into the yard against instructions and fights, he involved the whole school in his beef, endangered everyone outside, locked the school, effectively ending the learning for the day, and soiling the school reputation.

But it’s not just that: School officials say the story on social media that explains his involvement is just a retroactive motivation.

“This has nothing to do with bullying,” curator Gabriel Trujillo said at a parent-teacher meeting. “I understand that this gentleman needs a certain story to excuse his bad behavior and bad decision-making, but I’m here to tell you that’s not true.”

School is more than its shortcomings

I do not want to apologize to Smith or the school, the district or the students involved. Something is obviously wrong when the mere appearance of a man and his two children at lunchtime can start a series of fights.

I want to know why the other combatants were free to roam and confront Smith and his sons. In the new case, I wonder how the school officials missed that a counselor, according to authorities, lived and had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old. All in all, I question whether it is really smart to place 3,000 students in a high school in a district where most high schools are signed.

I am also shocked when I look at Tucson High’s test results and see that last year only 22% of students received grades as skilled or very proficient in English language arts.

So yes, something is wrong, especially at school that day. But it also reflects something wrong in society, in the job market and in Arizona’s education system. Teachers, who are becoming increasingly disrespectful along with their low salaries, are quitting. Schools find it difficult to hire and retain staff. And all of this is happening when our society is getting angry from the pandemic, with some adults modeling outrageous behavior.

Noah Sensibar, who sits on Tucson High’s council, has ridden the waves at Tucson High School while sending three children to school there for nine different years, including one now.

“There are an incredible number of children who show up every day, go to lessons, get good grades, do their homework, practice the various educational opportunities a school of this type offers and come away with a fantastic educational experience,” he said.

As for the brawl, he said, “It’s a shame it’s what people see and focus on instead of the amazing art, the amazing sciences and the amazing vo-tech stuff that Tucson High has.”

Not everyone will like Tucson High, a vast school that has shown its worst qualities in recent weeks. It is OK. But the day after the brawl, I went to a fantastic concert in the school’s beautiful auditorium, filled with parents and even alumni, and I still felt good about the place, despite its obvious shortcomings.

Contact opinion columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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