A testy exchange involving a child at a school board meeting emerged as a flash point as the Palo Alto Board of Education met Thursday, Feb. 6, in a mid-year retreat.
Saying she "felt embarrassed" by the emotional Jan. 28 confrontation, parent Mary Vincent, who had been present later in the meeting but not directly involved in the incident, asked board members Thursday to apologize for it and to loosen regulations governing public comment when students are involved.
Marielena Gaona Mendoza, an adult who was called "out of order" by Board President Barb Mitchell in the Jan. 28 incident, said Thursday she had been "kind of prepared" for the confrontation since she understood she was technically violating rules governing public comment. But Mendoza who had been chaperoning an 11-year-old student who tried unsuccessfully to testify at the meeting -- said she had pressed on because of her belief that the district systematically discriminates against minority, low-income and special-education students.
"I know you make exceptions for other students, but why not for Angela?" Mendoza said Thursday, referring to 11-year-old Angela B., the student whom Mendoza had accompanied to the meeting.
Mendoza said that like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, she was prepared to have "a lot of people against" her because she has devoted herself to advocating for students, particularly minority, low-income or special-education students in Palo Alto.
When three of her own four children attended Palo Alto schools, Mendoza said, school personnel and others routinely assumed they were Tinsley transfer students even though the family owned and lived in their Palo Alto house.
In the Jan. 28 exchange at a school board meeting, 11-year-old Angela had signed up to testify on an agenda item concerning middle school course offerings for next year. (Angela's testimony occurs in the video at 1:27:00.)
When she began to testify about being bullied at school, board President Mitchell interrupted, saying, "Excuse me for interrupting, but this (agenda) item is on the middle school courses." Addressing Mendoza, Mitchell asked, "Is this about middle school courses?"
After Mendoza responded affirmatively, saying the girl was in middle school, Mitchell said, "I'll give some latitude; this is about the agenda item on specific middle school courses that are being proposed."
When Angela resumed her testimony about being bullied and called "shorty," "midget" and "elf" because she is short, Mitchell interrupted: "Ms. B, my dear, could I direct you to speak with (Associate Superintendent) Dr. Young, who is in the room, as this item is not on the agenda right now."
Then, addressing Mendoza, Mitchell said, "Marielena, we're done here. I want to be very courteous to our young student."
After Mendoza took the microphone and said the girl was trying to explain that she had been bullied, Mitchell said: "Marielena, you are out of order. Please cut the mike; we're going to ask you to be removed.
"And Ms. B, you may speak with (Assistant Superintendent) Dr. Young please if you would like to, and I apologize if you were surprised by my comment."
At Thursday's board retreat, Mendoza said she and Angela had arrived at the Jan. 28 meeting before 7 p.m. expecting Angela to testify in the "open forum" period. But they were told they had missed that segment of the meeting. They then waited more than an hour until the item on middle school course offerings came up.
Mendoza Thursday produced a sheet attached to the printed agenda outlining "how to address the Board of Education," which said "Open Forum ... is scheduled to occur as close to 8:30 as possible." Board members said that sheet was in error, a holdover from last year, before public comment was moved to near the start of a board meeting.
Mitchell said management of public comment is "a judgment call, but the idea is to try to be consistent and fair to all members of the community," noting that bylaws say a speaker must address the agenda topic except during the "open forum" period.
"It's my expectation that I always treat people courteously, and if I failed in that way that's totally my responsibility, and people are free to criticize how I handed it," she said.
Parent Vincent told Mitchell the decision to interrupt Angela had been a "poor judgment call.
"Board members need to set their emotions aside as they do the people's business," Vincent said, asking them to "develop a protocol for students speaking to the board to make them feel safe, welcomed and valued members of the community."
Several board members said they supported putting that idea on the agenda for a future meeting.
Mendoza said she held a job as a Palo Alto elementary school aide until resigning last summer in frustration over what she felt was mistreatment of vulnerable students. Now that her family has finished with the school district, she said, she has rented out her Palo Alto home and moved to East Palo Alto.
"I know you have a lot of things against me," she told the board Thursday. "That's OK. I choose to be an advocate for the kids."