Tensions Persist at Rohnert Park School
Cecilia M. Vega, The Press Democrat, Jan. 31
Amanda Clarke, a bubbly 17-year-old who wears a heart-shaped stars-and-stripes pin on her Rancho Cotate High sweat shirt, giggles with one of her best friends about how they used to pass notes to each other in P.E. class.
Oscar Gutierrez, a fellow junior who sports a sweat shirt with the colors of the Mexican flag emblazoned on the back, jokes about how he was always a soccer fan before Amanda introduced him to hockey.
Lately, the pair hasn’t had a lot to laugh about.
She is vice president of the school’s Conservative Club, which is dedicated to “Protecting our Borders, Language and Culture.” He holds the same title in the school’s MEChA club, a group whose mission is “the advancement of Latino and all communities who lack resources by means of education.”
While they remain friends, the division represented by the viewpoints of some members of their two clubs remains deep.
“We’re not the ones who are fighting about it,” Gutierrez said. “We’re like succeeding while everyone else is fighting.”
School life on the usually quiet Rohnert Park campus has become polarized along political and racial lines after publication six weeks ago of a newsletter focusing on illegal immigration written by the Conservative Club’s president.
Many Latino students said this week they took personal offense at Conservative Club President Tim Bueler’s essay. He called undocumented immigrants “unsophisticated, poor and uneducated, who do not in any way hold strong family values.”
Some students — both Latino and white — hurled charges of racism at the club, which says it is exercising freedom of speech. Tempers flared and ultimately peaked two weeks ago when a Latino boy told Bueler he was a “marked man” and a Latina called him a derogatory name. Both students were suspended.
Fifteen police officers descended on the school to respond to the potential unrest, although no fights broke out and no one was arrested.
Since then, the predominantly white school, where about 17 percent of the 1,900 students are Latino, has struggled to return to normal.
“I think at this point it’s getting better, but it can burst at any time,” said Mario Vera, the school’s outreach liaison and co-faculty adviser for MEChA. “I get concerned about the provocation. I hope it doesn’t get to the point that it gets physical.”
On Wednesday, a weekly lunch meeting of MEChA, which is a Spanish acronym for Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan, drew about 50 students into a standing-room-only classroom. Typically, club leaders consider it a good meeting if half that number show up.
“The Cinco de Mayo dance used to be the biggest thing we did. But not this year,” said club President Andres Silva.
During the meeting, members of the mostly Latino group cautioned each other to “be cool” and to avoid any fights. They also planned what they would say in a written rebuttal to the Conservative Club’s Dec. 12 publication, “The Conservative Agenda.”
“People look down on us for the color of our skin,” said MEChA member Rosa Jiménez.
“Some people,” cautioned Vera.
“Some people,” she corrected.
Emotions are still raw over the newsletter. Some students have memorized whole paragraphs and still keep copies tucked away in their binders. Sixteen-year-old Jiménez broke down in tears talking about it.
“How many people are like this? How many people can I trust? Do they hate me? Am I supposed to hate them?” she wondered. “Is every person with white skin going to be an obstacle for me? You don’t know who considers you your enemy anymore.”
Bueler, a junior who idolizes such conservative pundits as Michael Savage and Bill O’Reilly, said students should not take it personally.
“We don’t want to hurt any ethnic group,” said Bueler, a lanky 17-year-old with blue eyes and close-cropped brown hair. “If you look like me and you’re illegal, you don’t belong here.”
Since school resumed after the holidays he has received a personal escort by school staff members to classes and to his ride home to ensure his safety.
Latino students, he said, have followed him to classes, cornered him in hallways and made personal threats.
“Maybe some of the rhetoric was inappropriate, and I apologized for that,” Bueler said of his newsletter.
On Thursday, he appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” on the Fox News Channel.
The show features conservative talk show host O’Reilly, who told Bueler: “I’m going to try to give you some advice here because some of the rhetoric that you’re using is, indeed, inflammatory and is going to get you in trouble, and clouds the issue that you want to talk about. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, I do,” Bueler replied.
Bueler has been hearing the same message from some of his strongest allies on campus, who are critical of Bueler’s essay in the club’s newsletter. It was printed and distributed without the permission of its faculty adviser and resulted in her resignation from the club position.
Clarke, who lives with her grandparents and said she was raised in a conservative home, said undocumented immigrants “can’t feel like they can break our laws coming here illegally and have the same rights as everybody else.”
But as for Bueler’s written comments that “liberals welcome every Muhammad, Jamul and Jose who wishes to leave his third world state and come to America — mostly illegally — to rip off our health-care system, balkanize our language and destroy our political system,” Clarke said, “I probably wouldn’t have said that.”
“I think his wording was intimidating,” she said. “I’m not going to say that he should have changed it, but he should have.”
Gutierrez, 15, whose parents immigrated illegally from Mexico decades ago, said what offended him most was not what was said but how it was said.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” he said. “It’s all in how people say it. The way (Amanda) says it, to me I have no problem.”
In the days after the newsletter’s publication, the school’s hallways and classrooms buzzed with chatter over the conflict. National media and conservative radio talk show hosts swarmed the school and some hailed Bueler as a symbol of First Amendment rights.
Next month, the school newspaper, the Catamount, will publish a cover story and series of articles about the controversy, including an article on what the future of the Conservative Club could be at Rancho Cotate.
In one sense, the conflict has been educational for students, who are learning how to discuss such real-world issues as immigration and racism, said student journalist Tristin Kellogg.
But “a lot of people are hoping that all the controversy and violence are going to die down,” the 17-year-old said. “Not necessarily that the club goes away, just all the attention. It really is only a club that’s supposed to meet once a week at lunch, an extracurricular thing, and it has been affecting everybody.”
The attention given the club may not fade soon. On Feb. 7, Bueler is to address the annual state convention of the Eagle Forum, a national conservative organization that will meet in Santa Rosa.
On Friday, the Conservative Club meeting on campus was at standing-room-only capacity with about 60 students. The meeting remained calm, making good a prediction from embattled Rancho Cotate Principal Mitchell Carter.
“This week has been a good week and I would expect it to continue to return to normal,” he said.
Carter faced tough questions in a heated meeting last week from dozens of Spanish-speaking parents who wondered whether their children would have been allowed to stay in school, as Bueler has, had they published comments that stirred so much controversy.
“If my kids would have written something like this about whites, he would have gone to jail possibly,” one father said.
Carter told parents that the school still was investigating incidents from the past two months and did not know whether disciplinary action would be taken against any students, teachers or administrators.
“Really,” he told the parents in Spanish, “we have a good school and we want to return to exactly as it was.”