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School District To Student Body President: STFU Or Get Out

When 13-year old Maia Wu spoke up about a decision to fence in her school, she got an unexpectedly authoritarian response.

Maia Wu is 13 and in eight grade. She's also a 4.0 GPA student and was elected president of her middle school's student body for the 2013-2014 year.

But she won't be able to serve out her term. Maia and her siblings attended Monterey Highlands Elementary in the Alhambra Unified School District. That school is not their neighborhood school, but they were granted an intra-district waiver to be permitted to attend. I don't know why they chose to apply for that waiver, but 13-year old Maia and her siblings, age 11 and 8, are exemplary students.

Maia's father is an Iraq war veteran, and her mother is a stay-at-home mom who is actively involved in her children's education, just the way we want parents to be.

Maia, it seems, took her lessons a little too much to heart. Anthony Cody has the entire transcript of her video, but it seems to boil down to this: Beginning last year, Maia spoke out about the process by which the decision was made to fence in her school after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

At this point, we didn't necessarily detest the idea of the fence, just how undemocratic the decision to build it was handled. The district and Principal Kotani had our safety in mind when building the fence. As quoted by my principal, "My priority is to provide and ensure a safe learning environment for all students and ... staff members." However, our community was not notified of this decision until the latter stages of its construction. By then, it was too late to take any action, and all efforts by our principal to communicate the building of the barrier was all for show and would have no bearing on the final outcome. It was all for show. No one ever told students what was occurring with the fence. Students were left in the dark about it and naturally, we felt like our opinions did not matter. So we decided to create posters in protest and to assert our voices. Class time was not interrupted as we knew better than to take away from instructional time. For the first time that year, students rallied in unison for something we all believed in. Children of all ages were passionate, proactive, and happy to take part in what we felt was our civic duty.

This is what we call free speech, particularly when it's conducted on state-owned campuses. The administration called it disruption.

Instead of working with us, they threatened to suspend students who were involved. I felt I was the target. Let's get this straight: A school wants to suspend a 4.0 student for putting up posters and exercising her first amendment rights? What a lovely and welcoming environment. A dissenting voice was not welcomed here. Why were our voices not welcomed? Shouldn't we have the right to actively exercise our opinions? They never gave us this. They wanted to silence us.

I do understand the need for school administrators to maintain an atmosphere of respect for authority and some semblance of order. But I'm at a loss to understand the basis for threatening to suspend students united against something. No one has said they were disrespectful or otherwise disruptive.

That was last year. Leap forward in time to the beginning of this school year, and this happened:

Within a few weeks of school starting my mother and I were called into the office to sign an agreement stating that I would essentially be a "good student". After that, things continued and life went on, but with a weary atmosphere. I was elected Student Body President a few weeks later and excited that I might be able to make some positive changes. I also joined many more groups, Mock Trial, Optimist Speech Club, became the co-founder of Future Business Leaders of America for our school. All seemed alright, but behind the scenes my mom and a group of twenty other parents were still fighting unfair policies with our school.

A shift away from Maia's open activism to her mother's, and the issues are broader now. The result, communicated in mid-January:

On January 17, 2014, I received my permit revocation letter. It was devastating. But not only was my permit revoked, but my 8-year-old brother and 11-year-old sister as well, both fantastic students who have never been in trouble or even tardy. Essentially, the letter gave four points as to why we had to leave by January 31 - in the middle of the school year. Not a single point had anything to do with me, my sister, or brother. They were retaliating against my mother for standing up for her first amendment rights. Who would sink so low, as to not even bother of thinking of the children's emotional, academic, or social state, and instead treat us as pawns in a game of chess?

Anthony Cody asked the AUSD for their side of the story.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this story is the idea that these permits could be revoked at any time for just about any reason. For those who would use this case to argue for school choice, I'd like to instead suggest that if neighborhood schools were not being systematically defunded, closed, or otherwise used as political pawns. there would have been no need for this transfer at all. But now that there was one granted, and all three siblings were allowed to attend this school, the reasons for revoking the permit seem petty and personal to me.

I'm not at all impressed with AUSD's response. It says, in part:

Although there is a process by which students residing outside of the District may apply for an interdistrict transfer permit to attend the District's schools, such a permit is not guaranteed and may be revoked consistent with District policy. The District cannot go into detail regarding the circumstances here, but denies that it retaliated or that the transfer permits were inappropriately revoked. Although the students are leaving our District, they will return to their district of residence and will not be denied an education.

What's wrong with this picture? This is where the administration's end of things fails. It certainly appears that these kids were targeted because their mother chose to exercise her right to speak out, too. Shrugging and saying "well, they'll get an education" misses the point entirely.

This girl was president of the student body at her out-of-district school. Now she's been ousted. What message does that send to kids?

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