After Maia Wu, the student body president of Monterey Highlands Elementary School, criticized the Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD), the district revoked Maia and her siblings’ permits in 2014.
In response to the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in Dec. 2012, AUSD decided to build a fence around Monterey Highlands Elementary School. According to an article in the Pasadena Star-News, officials said there were other incidents besides the shooting that warranted this fence such as a student walking off campus alone to visit a store down the street. However, after the shooting occurred, the idea was considered more seriously and the official announcement of the fence’s installation was made at a community meeting in the spring of 2013.
In the following weeks, students, including seventh grade student Maia, questioned the “undemocratic” procedures regarding the fence, posting flyers around campus and gathering signatures on a petition, according to her account in a YouTube video on Jan. 2014. They had many questions and concerns regarding this fence including: Why is funding being used for a fence when money was being cut from music programs and the library? Where was the funding coming from to pay for the fence? When school was not in session, the playground was open to the public. Would it still be available? However, the flyers were removed, allegedly because the students did not go through the proper channels to put them up, the Pasadena Star-News reported.
According to the video, the school administration reacted negatively. Maia and a few other students were called into the principal’s office and asked to stop their efforts to protest the fence, because it was a distraction from the upcoming state tests. They were also told that if they did not cease their efforts, the results from their state tests would reflect in their grades. Suspension was threatened, Maia said. Teachers told their students to stop discussing the fence. Though students were not necessarily averse to the construction of the fence, they were averse to how the announcement of the fence and everything that followed was handled, according to the video Maia posted.
On June 25, 2013, Maia, along with several other students and parents in the community banded together and stated their grievances at an AUSD board meeting. That same day, an Alhambra Education Foundation (AEF) member confronted Maia’s mother in the parking lot and threatened to make her children’s permits “go away,” according to Maia’s video.
The video also stated that Maia and her mother were called into the school office following school year and had to sign an agreement essentially stating that Wu would be a “good student.”
A few weeks later, Maia was elected student body president at Monterey Highlands. According to a family friend, as she was planning one of the school dances, a comment on Facebook complained about the new permission slip policy, and Maia replied saying that she would speak out against the policy on behalf of the students. Maia was soon called into the principal’s office during class and was told that she should not fight district policy.
Peter Eliasberg, Legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, expressed his outrage regarding the district’s actions.
“The district seems to either not care about or be ignorant of basic students’ rights, and that is very troubling to me,” Eliasberg said. “Their job is to know the law and understand the law… Even going beyond what the law is, what are they teaching the students? We are a society that, because we have a First Amendment, where it’s well-recognized that [our] right to dissent, to disagree and express political opinions is fundamental to civic participation.”
Maia, Collin, and Keeley Wu received their permit revocations on Jan. 17, 2014 because of their mother’s “unwillingness to cooperate with school officials and abide by District policies and procedures,” according to the revocation letter, which more specifically referred to the mother’s distribution of flyers for a parent support group before a winter concert held at Alhambra High School; her request that she be informed before any of her children are called into the office; and her request that all communication from AUSD be conducted via email.
“Permits are issued with the express understanding that the parent and student will cooperate with the district,” the district said in a statement to Pasadena Star-News. “Here, the parents refused to meet with school personnel, which was the primary reason that the permits were revoked.”
According to the revocation letter, she requested that “she or her husband were to be informed before any of their children were called to the office” after her daughter was called out of class to discuss what was on her personal Facebook page. It was a week before finals, and Maia was concerned about missing instruction. She also requested that all communication be conducted via email because of her busy work schedule, according to Maia’s video. Maia and her siblings had been attending school in AUSD under a permit as Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was their home district.
The Wu family appealed the permit revocations at a hearing 10 days after the permits were revoked. According to a family friend, though hearings are meant to be conducted by an impartial party, the hearing was conducted by Jeremy Infranca, a district coordinator at the time. The decision stood.
Prior to this hearing, Maia’s mother sent out an email to her children’s teachers, requesting letters of support for her children. Assistant Superintendent Marsha Gilbert said in the revocation letter that Maia’s mother misrepresented the reasons for the revocation in an attempt to “undermine the authority of the Principal.”
According to a family friend, to bypass the permit revocation, Maia’s father rented an apartment within the Monterey Highlands boundary, but when he went to register his children back into Highlands, he was told that they would have to see if there were room, and his children were delayed re-admittance. The Wu family later said they received a phone call from Gilbert who told the family not to go to the trouble of renting an apartment.
Though the students’ admissions were initially revoked outright, an email correspondence between AUSD and Maia’s mother indicated that the district would readmit the Wu children if they met certain conditions: They could finish out the school year under their permit but would need to return to their home school district (LAUSD) upon completion of that school year; they would not be granted a renewal; they were required to “permanently take down any and all YouTube videos and other social media with false and misleading information regarding AUSD or Monterey Highlands,” to “remove all petitions” and post a “freely given apology” drafted by the district in their place, and not to speak about Monterey Highlands or AUSD on social media, among other requests. It was also suggested that Maia step down as student body president.
“The district doesn’t have a right to make decisions about issues like retaining a permit or not, based on the way a parent is exercising their First Amendment right,” Eliasberg said. “Can they ask for an apology? Yes. Can they condition something on getting it? No.”
The Wu children were allowed back into Monterey Highlands about a month following the original permit revocation to finish out the year. The Wu family was cooperative with some of the conditions that were presented. Maia took down her original YouTube video, and they agreed not to speak about Monterey Highlands or AUSD. (The video was reposted after the children finished their final year at AUSD.)
Following that school year, the Wu children enrolled in schools outside AUSD.
In December 2014, the Wu family filed a lawsuit against AUSD. According to Pasadena Star-News, “the lawsuit, filed in December 2014, alleges AUSD violated due process, performed a breach of contract when it revoked three inter-district permits that allowed the children to attend the school, and overlooked the students’ civil rights, among other complaints.”
District officials did not respond to emails for comment.
Maia Wu addresses board regarding student intimidation
Published June 27, 2013
Maia Wu’s open letter in response to permit revocation
Originally published Jan. 30, 2014
Maia Wu pleads for return at AUSD board meeting
Published Feb. 18, 2014
Pasadena Star-News: Family lawsuit alleges Alhambra Unified violated students’ civil rights
Published Aug. 11, 2015
Huffington Post: Banished Student Body President Maia Wu Asks School To Take Her Back
Published Feb. 24, 2014
Alhambra Source: 8th grader fights Alhambra Unified in YouTube video
Published Feb. 6, 2014
Education Week: Student Body President Asks to be Allowed to Attend School
Published Feb. 1, 2014
LA Times: After Sandy Hook, schools start the year with heightened security
Published Aug. 11, 2013