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High School Confidential
Inside the Rancho Cotate High School Conservative Club
By R. V. Scheide
President George W. Bush did not score a lot of points with the Rancho Cotate High School Conservative Club when he proposed granting temporary amnesty to illegal immigrants last week. In fact, it's fair to say that 17-year-old club president Tim Bueler was incensed by the president's proposal.
"The Republican Party is too liberal for me!" Bueler shouted from behind the podium at a standing-room-only meeting of the club Friday, Jan. 9. More than 60 people--students and teachers, liberals and conservatives--packed the portable classroom on the high school's blacktop. A throng of students waiting outside in the rain did their best to listen in as Bueler held court over what's become the hottest--and perhaps the most divisive--club on campus.
Clearly enjoying the spotlight, Bueler, a wiry junior of medium height with close-cropped brown hair, waved a copy of talk-radio host Michael Savage's latest book, The Enemy Within. Savage, aware of the national controversy the club has generated, donated 50 copies of his tome lambasting public education in America to the club, said Bueler, who one day hopes to be a talk-radio host himself.
Bueler certainly seems to have the mindset for it. Since forming in September, the club has rocketed to notoriety, with national articles in conservative publications such as the Washington Times and the conservative website World Net Daily. The attention has come thanks in large part to Bueler's penchant for hurling invective and innuendo, a talent on full display at the meeting.
There's never been a better time for illegal immigrants in the United States than today, he hisses, waving his arms about in the air. He brands La Raza, the Latino human rights organization, as racist simply because its name translates to "the Race." The Conservative Club has drawn fire both from students and teachers, who have criticized and allegedly harassed Bueler and the club for their views, but the ACLU won't return his phone calls, he says, because he's not a "murderer, rapist, liberal, or homosexual."
Apparently, the fact that the ACLU successfully defended the rights of the American Nazi Party to march in 1977 in Skokie, Ill., has eluded the student. But facts don't play a large role in Bueler's repertoire. Like talk radio, the meeting--and the club--is about style rather than substance, a forum for conservative, mostly white students to vent their spleens at the so-called liberal agenda allegedly being taught at Rancho Cotate High School. Unlike talk radio, there were adults present who had more than a passing familiarity with critical thinking.
"You cannot put things in black and white like that," insisted Richard Neffson, a history teacher standing in the back of the room who supports the club's right to exist but whose patience appeared to be wearing thin. "That's why I'm concerned about the tone of this club's rhetoric."
An incredulous look crossed Bueler's face, as if he couldn't believe he'd been punked on his own turf.
"He's getting pissed off because he's getting called out," whispered Danika O'Leary, one of about 20 students sitting on the left side of the room in silent protest.
By the time Bueler was finished trying to shout Neffson down, including a threat to sue the school for failing to protect him from his alleged harassers, the short lunch period was over and the meeting adjourned.
"Whadaya think?" the teenager excitedly asked afterward, as if the audience had just witnessed a great spectacle.
Truth be told, the meeting was rather tame, in part because Neffson used up a large portion of the available time unsuccessfully attempting to teach the club the meaning of rational discourse. That the club has in the past been irrational is not in question, the most pointed example being its "Conservative Hotline" flier circulated on campus Dec. 3, which reads: "Have you heard any un-American comments expressed by your liberal teachers lately, or have you been verbally assaulted for being conservative? If so, then call the Conservative Hotline today and tell us about it! Let's take a stand against the liberal traitors who call themselves teachers, and reclaim our schools one classroom at a time. The Conservative Club, protecting our borders, language, and culture."
The flier raised hackles among the faculty. One teacher responded with a satirical "Liberal Hotline" flier that was circulated among faculty but somehow fell into Conservative Club hands and wound up being reprinted in the first issue of the Conservative Agenda, the club's newsletter. That issue also contained a screed against illegal immigration penned by Bueler that further inflamed feelings at Rancho Cotate.
"We should immediately close our borders to all illegal aliens and deport those who are already inside the United States, including the millions who are here on expired visas," Bueler wrote. "Liberals welcome every Muhammad, Jamul, and Jose who wishes to leave his third world state and come to America--mostly illegally--to rip off our healthcare system, balkanize our language, and destroy our political system."
According to principal Mitchell Carter, about 72 percent of Rancho Cotate's 1,900 students are white; 15 percent are Latino. In the four years he's been principal, Carter says there have never been any significant racial problems. But by singling out illegal immigrants with brown skin--"every Muhammad, Jamul and Jose"--the article angered both Latino students and students with progressive viewpoints. As one Latina at the club's meeting told Bueler, "You should have included all illegal immigrants."
After the article--which, contrary to school policy, was not reviewed by the club's faculty adviser--appeared, Bueler claims that on at least two separate occasions groups of Latino students confronted him, calling him "white boy" and "racist" and forcing him to seek refuge in empty classrooms, only to allegedly be denied sanctuary by teachers who disagree with the conservative student's opinions. Carter said he couldn't comment on the incidents because they are still under investigation.
"A Dissenting Student Hounded for
His Views" was the headline in the Dec. 30 Washington Times. Such conservative organizations have heralded Bueler and the 50 or so club members. Antifeminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly has offered to debate one of the faculty at a club meeting in February. Bueler seems to have found a home, a way of being, a lifestyle that suits his angry-young-man temperament.
In a phone interview the night before the club's Jan. 9 meeting, he said his conservative calling came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. His family, including his grandfather, a Pearl Harbor survivor, had long instilled a feeling of patriotism in him. After 9-11, Bueler was overwhelmed with a feeling of love for his country and disgust for liberals and organizations like the ACLU.
"God is an important part of my life," he said, declaring, "Most people who are Christians are conservatives." Although he couldn't cite any relevant passages, he claimed the Bible justifies the war against Iraq because "Islam is evil." Yet he has no plans to enlist in the military and fight what he deems a "religious war" unless a draft is instigated. Then, he says, he'll be one of the first ones to sign up.
Bueler noted that he had publicly apologized for the remarks in the newsletter that had been perceived as racist. Speaking of Latino students who were angered by the article, he said, "They feel like it's a personal attack, and I can understand where they're coming from." Despite the fact that some of the club's commentary has been perceived by both students and teachers as divisive and even hurtful, some may find it surprising that all of it, including the labeling of liberal teachers as "traitors," is protected under the First Amendment, according to Principal Carter.
"It's been very educational," he said drily, noting that the school has consulted with attorneys. "The things that have been distributed are protected speech." What bothers Carter most about the club's comments are what he calls the "unsubstantiated allegations of liberal bias" in the curriculum. "What's interesting is that you can make a charge like that without any kind of documentation."
Just like Bueler, individual teachers have academic freedom and free speech rights. If a teacher wants to hang a pro- or antiwar poster on the wall of the classroom, that's his or her prerogative. But when it comes to curriculum, teachers must follow the standards provided by the state for any given subject, and Carter says that all evidence indicates that Rancho Cotate High School is rigorously adhering to those standards.
Noting that his school has consistently out-performed state targets, he says, "We're focusing on academics here, and we've gone up."
Perhaps another statistic is more telling. The Conservative Hotline phone number belongs to Phil Graf, a semiretired Rohnert Park man who's become the club's off-campus adviser. A member of the National Rifle Association, Graf spoke at a club meeting Nov. 6, suggesting that the Columbine High School massacre might have been avoided if the teachers had been armed. But if the teachers at Rancho Cotate high school are armed with a liberal agenda, no one seems to be complaining about it on the hotline.
"I have had no conservatives call in on that line," Graf said ruefully.
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From the January 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.