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Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as Calif. District Wrestles With Free-Speech Uproar

Calif. District Wrestles With Free-Speech Uproar

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A California district is providing an adult escort to ensure the safety of a high school student who claimed physical and verbal harassment by his peers after he criticized immigration.

The 7,500-student Cotati-Rohnert Park city district, located about 1½ hours north of San Francisco, has launched an investigation into the incidents and held training for staff members and students on students' freedom of speech and respect for different opinions.

The measures were taken after Tim Bueler, an 11th grader, formed a Conservative Club and spoke out against immigration and expressed views on other controversial issues.

Mr. Bueler riled fellow students last fall by asking them to report "un-American" comments from "liberal" teachers, according to the district.

Tensions High

Many students called the club's views racist and some put up fliers mocking Mr. Bueler's views. Tensions were so high at the school in December that police intervened. The principal suggested that Mr. Bueler stay home for a three-day "cooling off" period after he allegedly was physically threatened by a group of Hispanic students, the student's father, Dennis A. Bueler, said. The student declined.

Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh said the district was treating the Conservative Club the same as the 20 or so other clubs at the school. The assemblies and meetings on free speech and sensitivity training have helped, he said.

"We are really moving forward in terms of looking for opportunities to help students be able to express themselves," he said in an interview last week.

A statement released by the district on Jan. 8 acknowledged some "missteps" by both the Conservative Club and school staff members. It said that Mr. Bueler should not have been advised to stay home.

Mr. Bueler's father said that he felt the district had handled the incident well so far, and that he hoped his son would learn to better show compassion. "He's 17, and he's looking at the world from a 17-year-old's point of view," he said.

Vol. 23, Issue 20, Page 3

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