This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A parent of a student at the Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia told the SRC Wednesday that school and South Region officials tried to intimidate her from testifying before the commission.
Angelica Viceriana, accompanied by Zac Steele, a community organizer from the community organization JUNTOS, said that while she was talking to her daughter’s teacher at the school Tuesday, other school staff interrupted and asked specifically to say what she planned to testify about. Staff yelled at her, then repeatedly called her after she went home, she testified.
"They told me to call other parents and not to come to the SRC meeting," she said in Spanish through a translator. She said she was told that if she complied, "they would pay more attention to my child’s concerns."
Two parent members of JUNTOS were signed up to testify at Wednesday’s meeting, updating the District on issues raised previously by the group about services for English language learners in South Philadelphia. The other, Ingrid Ocampo, gave testimony about what she deemed to be racist treatment of immigrant families at the Taggart School.
Steele said he too received calls Tuesday from regional office staff after the JUNTOS members signed up to speak and was told that he needed to meet with the regional superintendent that very evening. Steele said that he felt the SRC should not tell staff ahead of time which parents are on the speakers’ list, to avoid such problems in the future.
Ackerman said she would investigate the incident, asking a parent ombudsman on her staff to look into it. But she added that she had told staff in the regions and in schools to intervene and respond to grievances when parents want to speak before the SRC about problems involving their children and would continue to do so.
"Something happened here, I’m not sure what…I don’t know how spoken to or what was said," Ackerman said. "One of the issues for me, parents should not have to take off from work and come here on a Wednesday afternoon."
Later, she suggested that what happened may have been a matter of "cultural misunderstanding" and stated that this is the first time there has been a complaint that anyone was intimidated from speaking before the School Reform Commission.
SRC members Denise Armbrister, David Girard-DiCarlo, and Joseph Dworetzky each told the Notebook after the meeting that they backed Ackerman’s decision to attempt to solve parents’ problems before they get to the commission level.
Armbrister said of the practice, "It’s really not about intimidation – it’s an attempt to address the issues." She said she was satisfied that the superintendent said her staff would investigate what happened in this case.
Commissioner Johnny Irizarry, however, said that he was “very concerned” in general about communication with immigrant parents in the District. He said many had called him to complain about how they are treated by school personnel.
“I’m concerned about what is their reception, the services for them,” Irizarry said. “I sense her fear was legitimate. It’s easy to intimidate immigrant parents.