Civics lesson: Student volunteers at center of Doral city election dispute

Pete Cabrera, Doral city council candidate, held a press conference at Ronald W. Reagan Senior High School Friday.
Pete Cabrera, Doral city council candidate, held a press conference at Ronald W. Reagan Senior High School Friday. El Nuevo Herald

For months, students from Ronald W. Reagan Doral Senior High School have formed the volunteer backbone in former councilman Pete Cabrera’s campaign to regain his City Council seat.

But on Thursday, after complaints of shenanigans from Cabrera’s opponent and others, Reagan High’s principal banned students from getting community service hours for working on political campaigns.

Now Cabrera is saying the school is violating his students’ civil rights. But school officials say that under Florida law and Reagan High policies, the kids should never have received community service credit for working on political campaigns.

Cabrera faces incumbent Councilwoman Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera in Tuesday’s election.

Reagan High principal J.C. Silva made the decision after Rodriguez-Aguilera filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade County ethics commission. She accused Cabrera, and his student volunteers, of asking her student volunteers to defect to his side in exchange for getting credit for working more hours than they really would have to work.

Students at Reagan High are required to work 75 “community service” hours to graduate. Based on Silva’s announcement, students can still work for candidates on their own time, but they won’t get credit toward graduation.

“Candidate Cabrera approached several of the students that were working with me and enticed them to work for him,” Rodriguez-Aguilera wrote in her complaint. “I approached him and he told me to leave, and that several of the students were not going to work with me anymore.”

Rodriguez-Aguilera sent an emailed complaint on Oct. 28 to Joseph Centorino, the ethics commission’s executive director, saying that Cabrera’s “students suggested that if they would go to his campaign they would give them 20 hours for every 5 they worked and other things.”

An email to Rodriguez-Aguilera from a student’s mother was attached to complaint.

“I feel that this is degrading, how my daughter had to witness the bribes that the students from candidate Cabrera were trying to entice upon them,” a student’s mother, Alicia Correa, said in the Oct. 27 email.

Correa said it happened in front of the main office at the Miami-Dade department of elections while both sides were campaigning during early voting.

The day after, Correa’s daughter, Angelica M. Ballestas, who has been campaigning with Rodriguez-Aguilera for about two months, went to the principal’s office and complained.

Cabrera held a press conference at the school on Friday, in which he denied the accusation and called it an act of “intimidation” to students. About three dozen students, all wearing blue campaign shirts, attended.

“It’s not true, obviously,” Cabrera said, pointing at all the students behind him. “Nothing has been offered to these kids.”

Silva declined to comment.

According to Rodriguez-Aguilera, Ballestas told the principal that Cabrera was issuing his student volunteers more hours than earned, and attempted to bribe Rodriguez-Aguilera’s volunteers.

“Mr. Silva called me and explained that Ronald Reagan was not allowing community hours for political campaigns due to the verification with the student and teacher that additional hours were being offered — more than the students had worked,” Rodriguez-Aguilera said in a statement released Friday.

Soon after, according to Cabrera, his lead student volunteer, Maria Vizcaino, 18, was called into the principal’s office and was questioned for five hours.

Vizcaino, along with Cabrera and his manager, contacted a lawyer, Rick Yabor, who was present at the conference.

Yabor told the Miami Herald that Vizcaino was “interrogated from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Her phone was taken from her without her authorization, she was not allowed to contact her parents, she was threatened with suspension if she continues to be involved in Pete Cabrera’s political campaign.”

“There is no reason why she should be questioned for five hours,” Yabor said. “Historically, students have always been allowed to do community service hours for political campaigns. In my mind, this was completely inappropriate.”

Vizcaino declined to comment.

According to the Reagan High student handbook, “service hours may be performed at ... a non-profit organization, a school, a hospital, a retirement community.”

School Board Attorney Walter J. Harvey added: “By definition under the law, community service must be service that benefits the community, not private individuals.”

Last year, Senate Bill 566 was introduced in the Florida Legislature to “allow students to volunteer for, among other things, political campaigns.”

It didn’t pass.

“It sought to change the definition from “community service” to “volunteer service,” which would have been necessary to allow students to volunteer for political campaigns,” Harvey said. “Under federal and state law, non-profits are by definition created to benefit the community at large, and does not include in its definition political campaigns to elect a candidate.”

Harvey added that “there are a host of state laws that ban political activities using state resources.”

Yabor argued that regardless of the policy, students have historically been able to get community service credit for campaigns.

“They’ve always done it,” he said. “They asked the teachers and principal several times and they said yes, this service can count toward community hours.”

School district spokesman John Schuster said the principal made an announcement Thursday saying that “working for political campaigns would not be acceptable for community service hours in the future.” He added that the school will no longer be accepting community hours after Oct. 30.

Cabrera said his volunteers have done anywhere from “1 to 50 to 100 plus hours.”

Sasha Tirador, Cabrera’s campaign manager, told the Miami Herald on Thursday that the move “violates the civil rights of these kids.” She called Bettina’s complaint “a lie.”

“She’s an elected official that wants to stampede over young kids that have decided to get involved,” Tirador said.

Cabrera has 136 registered volunteers, Tirador said. Rodriguez-Aguilera said she has five. Both candidates offered their volunteers community service credit.

Miami-Dade School Board member Susie V. Castillo, whose district includes Reagan High, issued a statement Friday saying she was “disgusted by the exploitation of our students for political gain. It is both shameful and reprehensible that any candidate for public office would take advantage of our students for the sole benefit of their political campaigns.”

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