School Climate & Safety Opinion

Student Body President Asks to be Allowed to Attend School

By Anthony Cody — February 01, 2014 13 min read
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A student and her siblings this week had their permission to attend school within the Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD) revoked. Maia Wu is the president of the 8th grade class, and an excellent student. She and her younger brother and sister live outside the District boundaries, but until recently were allowed to attend by way of an inter-district transfer, which has now been revoked. So what has transpired to lead the District to give her the boot? According to Ms. Wu, the District is reacting to her outspokenness.

I sent a message to AUSD Superintendent Dr. Laura Tellez-Gagliano, to see if the District would respond, (and her response is now below). Here is the video Maia Wu posted a few days ago, followed by the text. It already has more than 12,000 views.

Dear friends of the Alhambra Unified School District,

My name is Maia Wu. I am 13 years old, in the 8th grade and I’m student body president of my school carrying a 4.0 GPA. I live in Los Angeles, California and I attend Monterey Highlands Elementary in Alhambra, part of the Alhambra Unified School District. I live with both my parents and have two siblings. My father is a veteran of war who served in Iraq and my mother is a stay at home mom. My younger sister is in the 6th grade and is 11 years old. My little brother is in the 2nd grade and just turned 8. I am writing this open letter to bring awareness to a civil rights issue that is brewing in our community. And I am pleading my case to be allowed to return to school.

Currently in my school, parents and teachers are afraid to speak out against what they feel is wrong, which is something that should not be accepted as the “norm”. Unfortunately, it’s not just teachers and parents, but students as well. You could even say, my school is run by fear.

During the 2012-2013 school year, in light of the Sandy Hook Tragedy, the district decided to build a fence around our school campus. Since our school was not enclosed by any physical barrier in its existence, it was a very touchy subject for everyone involved in the community. And that’s where my story begins.

The controversial decision to build the fence was influenced by the district’s lack of communication, with the administration, staff, parents, students, and surrounding community.

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.

Unfortunately our administrators saw this positive and galvanizing effect as subversive and an undermining of their authority. 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.

There was also fear. As a 7th grade student, I couldn’t understand what there was to fear. We were all Americans with first amendment rights, so what was wrong? I stood up for I believed was right, printed posters and taped them up in various locations throughout the campus. I decided to step up and help students shake off their fear and find their voices. The administration didn’t seem to like this too much. I guess you could say this is where things fell apart.

Around this same time, we learned there were other students and parents who had similar types of incidents in neighboring schools. We banded together and on June 25, 2013, a group of us gave speeches at an Alhambra Unified School District board meeting. At that same meeting, a family friend affiliated with the school district approached my mother in the parking lot telling her to essentially, cease and desist, and also telling her that he got her our permits but could easily make them go away.

I started my eighth grade year a couple months later. Students were still scared to use their voice, but still angry about the fence and the process or lack thereof, that the school used to communicate with the student body. 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.

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?

The first point given was that my mother, accused a school board member of being convicted twice for D.U.I’S which they called “slanderous” and stated, “your behavior directly contradicted the civil and honest communication of ideas we expect.” This is quite ironic considering how they dealt with the “fence incident.” She was merely questioning the tedious fingerprinting process that parents have to go through to step foot on campus. She was drawing a comparison to a school board member who is also a volunteer. But my mother quickly realized her mistake and then sent in an apology, which they fail to mention here. Even then, my mom sent this email out of fear and honest concern which was not meant to be slanderous in any form.

The second bullet read that my mother passed out “unauthorized fliers” at our school’s Holiday Program at Alhambra High school, claiming her “assistance in the distribution of the materials disrupted the holiday program and sought to shift focus of the evening from the students to your case.” Now, this is particularly a silly reason to revoke our permits. The fliers were not to promote a personal cause but to share information about the formation of a parent forum for sharing ideas about improving the school. My mom actually was there before the Principal and Vice Principal and she distributed fliers an hour before the program had yet to begin. Finally, my mom was not the only person handing out these fliers. It’s evident here, that this is a weak and unfair point.

The third bullet, in summary, states simply that my mom requested that either she or my dad be present when either my sister, my brother or I are called into the office. It is here that they state that her request can “not be honored.” They also write that, “we cannot agree to contact any parent every time a teacher or administrator wishes to speak with a student about a disciplinary issue or any other subject.” These were not my mother’s demands. She only asked to be contacted if any child was to be sent to the office. This was just a simple request. My mom was not trying to interfere with school policy or protocol. It is not reason to revoke 3 children’s permits.

The last bullet states that, " I asked you to come to the office to discuss an issue that arose regarding your daughter Maia. In an email dated January 6, 2014, you refused to meet with me personally or anyone else from the district and you demanded that all communication for the remainder of the school period take place via email. While we are all certainly willing to correspond with parents via email, restricting communication to one written form would seriously impede our ability to work with you effectively in the future.” First and foremost, my mom did not “refuse” nor “demand” anything. She had to unfortunately politely decline the meetings due to her schedule and requested that further communication be done via email OR regular mail. This is due to the fact that there have been multiple occasions where things have been... misinterpreted during meetings or calls. Email was a way to document everything that was occurring and to have an assurance on all things sent back and forth.

Based on these flimsy, weak and ridiculous points, my brother, sister and I had our permits revoked, which essentially meant we were kicked out of our school. When we first found out, we had an overwhelming amount of support from teachers, students, friends, and family. We also immediately set up a meeting in order to organize our appeal. We were told to wait five days. The fifth day rolled along and there was no letter. My mother called the district at 4:00pm but was told the specific person we were looking for was in a meeting. She then called again at 4:40, that person was still in the meeting. Finally, at 4: 58 she called, and was told that that person had gone home. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, we finally received the letter denying our permit, and our last day being the following day, Chinese New Year’s. Not only had we been strung along until the last minute, but kicked out on Chinese New Year Day. That’s comparable to kicking a child out on Christmas.

The letter they wrote and their revocation can easily be seen as childish retaliation to a parent standing up for her first amendment rights. My mother is a responsible, caring responsible adult who the principal and the school district is trying to paint as a deranged woman who doesn’t seem to have a clue about anything. If my mother and I are guilty of fighting for our rights as American citizens and guilty of wanting America to be America, so be it. Monterey Highlands and Alhambra Unified School District are obsessed with control and are no longer thinking about students when they make choices such as revoking permits from children like my siblings and I.

I have a vision of a school that will embrace student voice and student participation in civic matters. I want to learn in an environment that welcomes free-thinkers and welcomes opposing view points as a positive means to perpetuate the democratic process. If this is the current environment, we will produce children who live in fear of authority and not have the ability to think for themselves and will only use ideals given by higher authorities rather than trying to formalize their own. This is the number one threat to democracy in our country. I am 13 years old, not afraid to let my voice be heard and wish to return back to my school.

Thank you very much for your attention.


Maia Wu

Student Body President

Monterey Highlands Elementary School

When I heard of this case, I asked Ms. Wu to discuss the situation.

1. When did you first get a clue that people were upset with your outspokenness?

As soon as I saw my posters being taken down from our campus walls, and tossed into the trash, I knew my, and other people’s, voices were not welcomed. In addition to this, though, it greatly amazed me when they were not willing to work with the student body to find a solution or compromise, at all. The situation regarding the fence was either ignored or threats about those protesting it were given.

2. Where do you get the idea that you should have the right to say whatever you want?

I suppose from my History classes, as odd as it may sound. Learning about the constitution, our U.S Amendments and rights as Americans greatly influenced my belief in freedom of speech, but not necessarily “saying what ever I want.” The term " saying what ever I want” does not imply me being rude or speaking profanity of any sorts towards people’s ideas and/or their personal opinions.

3. What kind of support do you have from other parents and students in the community?

I believe I have a mix of both positive and negative support from parents and students. Most of the negative feedback are from parents or students who are afraid of expulsion or being singled out. Others understand that what is occurring, is probably not the best thing for everyone and believe I’m a relatively good candidate to be their voice. Those dealing out the negative feedback, is not necessarily caused by the difference of opinion, but more so by the fear connected to supporting having an opposing ideal or belief. Many of the non-supporters are indeed terribly frightened and fear retaliation.

4. What do you intend to do to fight your exclusion from the District?

I intend to create multiple petitions, both physical and online, and gather all those opposed to our permit revocation wear army green, green, or simply camo. I also intend to approach them directly in a meeting this upcoming weekend.

5. What can the District do to make this right?

Perhaps they could stop treating us like pawns in a game of chess, but also think about our well being when doing something as drastic as revoking three children’s permits in the middle of a school year. At least improve communication between staff, parents, and especially students.

Also, it would be quite helpful if they were to uphold what schools were founded on and put children first, whilst also treating us as American Citizens. I believe it is extremely important that they leave their arms wide open, willing to embrace different opinions and beliefs of students, parents, and teachers, as well as willing to come together to help find a solution. It’s not like parents and children are unwilling to work toward a solution, which they are MORE than happy to. it’s simply the fact that we are never OFFERED a solution.

Update, Feb. 1, 11:20 am EST: I have received the following response from Dr. Tellez-Gagliano, Superintendent of Alhambra Unified School District:

The District is aware of a YouTube video made by an 8th grade student claiming that her, and her siblings', interdistrict transfer permits were revoked in retaliation for their mother exercising her free speech rights. 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. While there is never a good time to make such a decision, the District adhered to its established revocation policies and procedures, including the right to appeal the decision. The District understands the disruption revoking a transfer permit can cause and, therefore, takes such action seriously. The District firmly believes that this decision is in the best interests of all involved and are confident that the students will continue to receive an excellent education in their home district.
Laura Tellez-Gagliano, Ed.D Superintendent Alhambra Unified School District

Update, 8:45 pm EST, Feb. 1, 2014: There is an online petition now. It states:

On January 31, 2014, Maia Wu, our 8th grade student body president and 4.0 student, was kicked out of Monterey Highlands Elementary. Alhambra Unified School District strikes again -- this time targeting Maia and her two younger siblings. Why? Their mother was simply doing what any concerned parent should do for their children -- which is, ask questions when questions needed to be asked. Please take a few minutes to listen to Maia’s story. If you see the injustice in this, please sign this petition and help us get Maia and her siblings back in their school. This is part of the broader national headline about where the US education system is headed. Thank you.

Update, 11:05 am EST, Feb. 2, 2014: Local news carried a report on the situation last night:

What do you think about this situation? How can we make sure student voices are heard?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.