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Students Fight for the Right to Protest

Over 250 high school students who staged a one-hour walkout on March 19th to protest the Iraq War are fighting the principal's decision to give them all two day detentions and fighting for the right to free expression in school. From their March 31st press release:

“This detention is unfair, because we were taking a chance to voice our opinions and educate ourselves, which we are not given the opportunity to adequately do so in school,” said Aislinn Bauer, a Princeton High School sophomore and one of the organizers of the walkout. “We’re turning this punishment into something productive.”
“What I do not understand is how we were able to miss three periods to see Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience perform and throw Mardi Gras beads at us, which had little to no educational value,” said Russell Cavallaro, another Princeton High School sophomore. “This walkout actually had educational value. Students were educated on the causes of the war, why it should never have happened, and had a chance to offer their respects to the fallen soldiers.”

The Times also covered the situation:

 

[...] sophomore Aislinn Bauer, said the rally against the war gave students an opportunity that isn't found in the classroom.
During history lessons, she said, it's more acceptable to talk about past events than to discuss conflicts existing today.
"It's as if the teachers don't want to get in trouble or cause problems by engaging in debate that has many different sides. But this war is very real," Bauer said. "We had to take it in our own hands to educate ourselves and others."

I got a chance to talk to Arantzazu Galdos, one of the organizers of the protest. She said that students converged on the Board of Education on the 31st, and presented their case of what happened.

The walkout organizers informed the principal of their impending action well in advance. "He started off telling us that it's alright, and then a couple of days before the walkout he started basically yelling at us," said Galdos. "He said things like 'I can't believe you're doing this,' 'do this on your own time,' and then he turned around and told the press how proud he was" of what they were doing. According to Galdos, Judy Wilson, the District Superintendent, said she frankly didn't believe them.

The students at the walkout signed petitions demanding the school district inform students of their right to opt-out of military recruiting contact lists (No Child Left Behind made it a requirement that high schools share their students' information to military recruiters - making what used to be an opt-in situation an opt-out situation). Another petition demanded the right to speak out on political issues when they are brought up in classes - "political discussion is routinely silenced in class, even when we're talking about an issue," Galdos said.

At the school board meeting, parents and community members also took the time to voice their support for the students. There is a larger board meeting coming up on April 22 at 8pm, and the organizers expect to have a large presence there as well.

This is a great example of thinking globally and organizing locally. Instead of just having a walk-out to protest the Iraq War (which really would do nothing to stop the war itself), they linked the war with issues relevant to the students -- the right to opt-out of being harassed by military recruiters, and the right to freedom of expression in school. That's probably how they were able to get about a quarter of the entire student population out of their classes and on the front lawn (despite the Principal's -- ever vacillating -- disapproval). And now that they have 250 signatures on those petitions, along with students who have materially invested themselves in a previous action (the act of leaving class, and getting detention), the time is ripe for increased organizing in the next few months -- especially at a time where students are getting more and more restless as the summer approaches.

Kudos to the walkout organizers, and I wish them success going forward.