School board member apologizes; many still want action after comments about Guatemalan students

Reporter: Gail Levy Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:

A school board member apologized after she angered community members with comments about immigrant students, but many still want to see a greater response from the school district.

Chris Patricca with Lee County School Board made comments about Guatemalan students during a virtual community forum in Estero recently. This upset many community members.

“The biggest challenge that those principals are facing is getting them out of the bathroom because they’ve never seen running water before,” Patricca was heard saying during the recent virtual forum.

During the school board meeting Tuesday, board member Melisa Giovannelli called a motion for an abuse of power investigation into Chris Patricca. Only Giovannelli and board member Gwyn Gittens voted for it, so the motion failed.

Public commenters said Patricca’s words were racist, humiliating and not something an elected official for the people would say.

“For her to make this type of comment, it’s embarrassing,” said Yvette Benaroach, the state vice chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Florida.

Benaroach is not Guatemalan. She is from Puerto Rico and move to Florida 19 years ago. She says she understands how Patricca’s comments have impacted community members.

“It’s hurtful because we’re builders,” Benaroach said. “Even me from Puerto Rico, we all move here looking for that American dream. That it’s each person’s American dream.”

Kathy Mayo was born in the U.S. She’s ready to see a change on Lee County School Board.

“Our school systems deserves better representation from the people who set its policies,” Mayo said.

Before the meeting Tuesday night, we saw people begin to walk in and stand outside the District to express their view that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.

In an earlier meeting during the day, Patricca said she genuinely felt bad, and that she never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings.

“Many of you sitting at this table know what’s in my heart, and that’s not it,” Patricca said. “I would never purposely say anything to hurt any person. I would never purposely say anything to hurt a group in our community.”

“I did reach out to the executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Palm Beach County asking for a tour and asking for a conversation,” Patricca said. “So that I can educate myself on the Guatemalan community and perhaps connect with other Guatemalans leaders across the state. I’ve not heard back from them, but I do anticipate a productive dialogue.”

During the earlier meeting, Patricca claimed someone told her Guatemalan kids spend a lot of time in the bathroom watching the water run. When she was pressed, she refused to reveal who told her that.

Protesters we spoke to told us Patricca’s apology is not enough.

“We don’t accept her apology,” Benarroch said. “We acknowledge that she apologized. That’s fine. We appreciate it very much, but it’s not enough. We demand her resignation.”

Other protesters who are upset said asking for Patricca’s resignation goes too far.

Some community advocates said Patricca’s comments were disrespectful and belittling, so they’re asking her to resign. They also want to see more diversity education for the school board members. More than anything, they want to see change from the board as a whole.

“The school district in a whole, not only Chris Patricca,” school advocate Jacqueline Perez said. “But every single board member, because it’s a collegial board, should be standing up and saying there’s something wrong with this. That we do not agree with her thinking or what she said everyone should be saying something to support the community. We need a public apology.”

“We’re speaking about someone who has been on the school board for five years,” Perez said. “She is the president of the Florida School Board Association, so she’s over all the school district’s in the state of Florida, so her perception of an entire country and students that attend our schools was belittling.”

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