Anthracite Unite has taken a firm stance against corruption and institutional racism in the Hazleton Area School District, and we’ll remain committed to protecting working-class students’ right to quality education. Leading up to the May 21 primary elections, we’re running a series of posts profiling four working-class Latina mothers who are running for a seat on the Hazleton Area School Board, challenging the local petty bourgeois establishment.
Anthracite Unite: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you’re running for school board?
Yesenia Rodriguez: Yes, my name is Yesenia Rodriguez. I am a wife and a mother of six. I immigrated to the United States when I was 14-years-old with my mom and my brothers, my dad had been living here already. For me it was a bit challenging when I started in school because I didn’t know a word of English when I came. But like I say, I had a choice: it was either learn or learn. So that’s what I had to do.
I’ve been involved in the community for about six years now. I am a foster mom, which led to the adoption of three of my children. So I get involved in the community when it comes to that. Doing things for children, for the less fortunate in my community. I am part of Brandon’s Forever Home, a non-profit organization that helps families that are fostered and adopted.
The reason why I decided to run for the school board is because I’ve been living here for fourteen years and since I came to Hazleton, I’ve seen that the education, instead of getting better, is getting worse. We’re losing a lot for our children when it comes to sports, afterschool programs, and much more. Instead of trying to get kids out of the streets and offering them something they can hold onto, we’re just taking things away. And I decided to come out of my comfort zone as a mother and run. That way we can integrate the community and make it better. I think I have a lot of good ideas when it comes to safety, when it comes to after school programs for the kids. So I wanted to do this, and this is the time to do this.
AU: What are some of those ideas?
YR: One of the ideas I have for safety is an ID for the kids. Especially for the middle and high school children. Sometimes when I’m waiting for my son, who is in high school, I see these kids come in late and they just walk into the school. They tell the security guards they’re late, they sign the book, and they go. For me, that’s very dangerous. With school shootings and these things, for me this isn’t the right way to do it.
When I grew up in New York, we used to have an ID when I went to high school, and you’d swipe your ID on the way in. If for whatever reason you were not supposed to be on school grounds, the machine would turn red automatically. Then the security guards would know and pull you out of the line. But if you were okay to go, of course it would be green. If it was your birthday it would be blue and everyone would wish you a happy birthday. It was very secure. It’s a very safe method of keeping track of who is coming in, especially in the high school. That’s one of the ideas I’d like to introduce and see whether it’s feasible.
Another thing has to do with sports. My nieces have been on the cheerleading squad since they were in second and third grade. One of the things I don’t think is right is their parents had to pay for everything since they started. I don’t think that’s fair. Yes, I think they should sell tickets, they should collect some money, but I think the school has to help them too. They are investing their time in this. They’re winning the school trophies, and giving it visibility. And if the district doesn’t have the money, then we should ask for grants where these kids can get covered, just in case their parents can’t deliver when it comes to uniforms, shoes, even the trips they go on. I think we should have more for that, I don’t think we’re giving them enough.
Because, again, if we’re asking our children to come off of the streets, then we have to offer them something. We have to offer them something in return. A couple years ago we took away a lot of funds for the basketball team. They also just took away the pools for the elementary kids — which was a big disturbance for me.
Think about it: the idea is that kids learn to swim when they are in elementary school, and then when they get to the high school there is a class that they have to take in order to graduate. So what’s going to happen when these kids who don’t have a pool at home reach high school? They’re not going to know how to swim. I don’t think they evaluated this enough before they decided to close the pools.
It’s just sad how much we’re taking away. We need to make better decisions with our money. If I get on the school board, I’ll be looking to see how we can use the money to offer more for our children.There’s so many different things we can offer, we just need to work harder and work together.
AU: The example of the pools getting closed seems really important. Because the people who are making these decisions are probably the people whose children had access to a big swimming pool in the backyard of their big house. Which raises the question, are they thinking about how their decisions impact all kids, or just their own, wealthy children?
YR: The pool issue is unfortunately already decided. We’re spending $287,000. To close three pools. I mean, instead of looking at different perspectives or considering different options, they just all agree and it’s done. That’s it.
So for me, yes, most of the people on the Board, they don’t even have kids in the school district anymore. I don’t think they’re looking at the best interests of all children. The superintendent said we can just get more kids to go to the YMCA. How are you going to get all these children in there? Are you going to give every family a membership? Is that how you expect kids to learn how to swim? What about transportation? Did they think about how hard it would be for many of our kids to get to the YMCA at least once a week?
We went to the school board meetings about this, but the decision was already made. The Board members and the superintendent had already made up their minds, so there was nothing we could do. Again, their priorities are backwards: Instead of doing all we can for our children, they’re taking things away.
AU: Let’s also go back to your point about security. It was interesting to hear how easy it is to walk in after hearing so much about how excessive the security is – we’ve all seen the videos of security officers using excessive force and the statistics showing how many kids they send to the magistrate and the racial / ethnic disparities in how kids are disciplined. Can you talk a bit more about that? Is the problem not necessarily that it’s too much security but instead security that is just poorly carried out?
YR: Well, one of the biggest issues is the language barrier. The language barrier between the kids and the security guards. Like I said, I came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when I was 14. I started high school right then, not knowing a word of English. You know how frustrating that is? On top of moving your world — I had friends there who I dreamed about graduating with. Now I know that my parents did what they did to give me a better future, and I thank them for it, but at that point it was hard for me to understand that. This is common. You’re still a child. Do you know how frustrating it is to sit in a classroom where everyone is speaking English and to not know a word? I cried for over a month when that happened. I used to come home and ask my dad if I could go back and live with my grandparents. It’s frustrating!
So I think most of the problems that are happening now have to do with the language barrier between teachers and security guards and these kids who are new to the system. I do understand the importance of adapting and learning the language, but I also understand that it takes time and effort and help from other people. So when we get these kids from other countries and we send them into a classroom where we can give them the tools to get started, then we can let them go off on their own. But we have to help them.
One of the things we need to do is we need to hire a couple of bilingual security guards. That way if something is going on they can interact with someone in their own language. It makes a big difference. When a security guard is telling them what to do, and the student doesn’t understand what they are saying, then obviously they are not going to follow directions. Not because they don’t want to. Because they can’t understand them.
But it goes beyond the language barrier, too. I did have an experience with one of the security guards that goes beyond that, because my children were born here and speak English. My son, when he was 16, was assaulted by another kid who was 19. Right in front of my house. My son couldn’t come to school after that. He had a broken wrist, his face was so swollen you couldn’t recognize him. To the point where the principal was arranging for a teacher to come to my house so he could keep learning; they thought he’d be out for three months. But, thank God, he healed and came back only about four weeks after the assault.
The day he went back, he came home and told me, “Mom, you wouldn’t believe what one of the security guards told me. He said, “Either your mom is a liar, or you’re like the Wolverine that you heal so fast.” That was coming from the head of security!
The next day, I was furious. I came in with all the medical records. An account of all the injuries. I told them what was said to my son, and told them I wanted to speak to that security guard – first of all, because he called me a liar, and second of all, he compared my son to a wolverine. How can you say something like that to a child?
For me, that was very disrespectful. They knew everything my family had been through, and you’re going to approach my son after he was assaulted and this is the first thing you’re going to say to him? How are you going to do this? With all of the conversations we’re having right now about mental health and mental health awareness, how are you going to talk to a child like that? Especially when you are the head of security guard.
AU: It sounds like there’s also some ingrained racism at play here, too.
YR: Everytime something happens at one of the schools, the first thing we see are racist comments like “Oh, that’s how they act.” That whole thing that happened with that girl, who had her head slammed against the cafeteria table by a security guard. I was reading all these comments about that, and it was so sad and heartbreaking to me that people were actually talking that way.
There was one person, this guy, he made a comment. He said, “Throw some more dogs and cops to these animals. Get them out of here.” The sad thing is, that person works for HASD. I told him, this is why HASD needs to evaluate their personnel, and his reply to me was, “Oh, you’re not inside here, you don’t know what goes on.” I am inside there. I’ve been involved since 2012.
There have always been fights in the high school. They blame everything on the population growing so fast – and I get it, it grew too fast for them to get prepared for it – but it is what it is and they need to learn how to handle situations.
AU: If people want to support you, what can they do?
YR: They have to vote! May 21.
AU: And what would you say to someone who is deciding who to vote for?
YR: Go out and support some new people. We need fresh people with fresh ideas on the school board. People who have been through it. That’s what we need. Somebody who understands. I will be that person.