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Protest by Hispanics Disrupts Calif. Board Meeting

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Police had to clear the monthly board meeting of the Dinuba, Calif., elementary-school district last week after tensions between about 80 Hispanic activists and the board erupted in a fracas.

Nine protesters were arrested in the incident, which came on the heels of about a month of student boycotts of schools in Dinuba and other districts near Fresno to protest the lack of Hispanic representation on the district boards.

Although the melee was unusual, the tensions that caused it appear to have become more common in California school districts, Hispanic leaders in the state say. The state's growing Hispanic population has become increasingly frustrated by their failure to win representation on many local school boards and city councils, most of which are chosen in at-large elections, they say.

The at-large election system used in Dinuba "discriminates against Latinos," asserted Joaquin G. Avila, a lawyer from Milpitas, Calif., who works with the Mexican-American Political Association.

In April, on behalf of several Hispanic parents, Mr. Avila filed federal voting-rights lawsuits against the Dinuba elementary and high-school districts, the city of Dinuba, and the nearby Cutler-Orosi Unified School District. The suits are pending. The protest at the Dinuba school board meeting reportedly was organized by the nearby Fresno chapter of MAPA. The group objects to the fact that, although the student populations of Cutler-Orosi and both Dinuba districts are more than three quarters Hispanic, none of the districts currently has a Hispanic member on its board.

Leaders of MAPA could not be reached for comment last week.

Schools Boycotted

Some Hispanic students have been boycotting the three districts since Dec. 2.

Mark Fabrizio, the superintendent of both the 3,100-student Dinuba elementary district and the 1,100-student Dinuba high-school district, said a total of 180 students stayed out of school in both districts at the beginning of the boycott, but that all but about 20 have since returned.

The cases of students who remain out of school are being referred to the district's school-attendance review board, which handles the students as truants, Mr. Fabrizio said.

Eddie Ikard, the superintendent of the 3,600-student Cutler-Orosi district, said that about 200 students were out of school on the Dec. 9 peak of the boycott but that all but about 40 have returned.

"I am saddened that the adults are using children to be involved in a political process, because students are the ones who suffer," Mr. Ikard said.

The incident at the Dinuba elementary board meeting reportedly began after Hispanic protesters appeared at the meeting and demanded to be put on the agenda.

Mr. Fabrizio said he offered to let the protesters speak during the public-comment portion of the meeting, but told them that he could not legally change the agenda to put them on it.

The protesters then began to chant and throw eggs and backed several board members against a wall.

"There was no way to control them," Mr. Fabrizio said. "It was a mob."

"You don't bring eggs into a board meeting if you don't plan to start a riot, do you?" he asked.

The meeting was adjourned, and police cleared the room. The meeting is scheduled to continue on Jan. 16.

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