16-year-old Shane James, an honor roll student with a 4.5 GPA, and three other students have been suspended for five days from their Maryland high school for organizing a March 1 walkout over teacher salaries, improving the quality of education and calling for an apology to Filipino teachers who will lose their jobs due to their visas expiring. According to the Washington Post, the students had spent months planning the walkout at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County; more than 400 members of the 2,274-member student body were to participate. The students were also planning their walkout in conjunction with Occupy Education’s March 1st “National Student Day of Action.”
The school’s first-year principal, Edgar Batenga, learned about the walkout the night before it was to occur. On the morning of March 1, Batenga made an announcement instructing students not to participate. Students had planned to meet outside the school at 2:40 pm, at the end of third period, but no one did. “Several dozen” had reportedly left their classrooms and caused what Batenga describes as a “major issue” in the hallways.
James and the students who were organizing the walkout were not among those “several dozen” as they were in the principal’s office. The Washington Post says that Batenga had “identified two people he thought had organized the demonstration, based on Twitter feeds, and brought them into the office”; the two students mentioned the name of another student. James himself only went to the principal’s office after hearing that his friends were there. Batenga has given the four students five-day suspension, on the grounds that the students had “incit[ed] others to disturbance and/or violence,” a violation of the school system’s policies and procedures.
Danielle Duvall, James’s mother, told the Washington Post that she is “really upset” about the suspensions and that her son “didn’t do anything that was illegal or wrong. He’s not a troublemaker. He’s one of the good guys.” Indeed, the week before the walkout and the ensuing suspensions, James had been “lauded for his political activism,” excellent academic performance and high attendance. Community leaders and Occupy protesters have taken up the students’ case, calling for the suspensions to be removed from their permanent records and charging that the students’ “rights to free speech and to assemble appear to have been violated.” (Please sign this Care2 petition to protest the students’ suspensions.)
As the Washington Post notes, the school system says that students have the right
“to assemble and to demonstrate at such times and in such places within the school building or upon school grounds as the principal of the school may approve.”
Northwestern High School held a forum on Monday night to discuss the controversy that has arisen in the wake of the aborted walkout and the suspensions. Students said police were used to keep them from leaving the school; Batenga counters that “there were more officers at the school because the school resource officer was conducting a training that day.” One student, Boris Mitiuriev, who had planned to participate in the walkout but was unable to, argued that the school administration’s response was excessive, observing that “This wasn’t Occupy London. It’s not Egypt, where people are throwing rocks at the military.”
The most inspiring words in the Washington Post‘s account of the controversy are from James himself. While noting that the walkout, now dubbed “Project Fail” by students, did not occur as planned, he points out that it has achieved its goal “to politicize the community and to start a dialogue.” Dubbing it a “success,” James says that “the community is engaged, not just about the response, but about the issues that we brought up.” He is indeed right and should be commended — not suspended — for waking up the community about some urgent realities.
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Photo by ecastro