Friday, November 09, 2007

Students Call Protest Punishment Too Harsh

By Cynthia Yednak

November 7, 2007, The New York Times

CHICAGO - A school superintendent's decision to suspend, and
perhaps expel, about two dozen students who took part in a
protest against the Iraq war at a suburban high school drew
criticism Tuesday from the students and their parents, who
demanded that their children be allowed to return to classes.

In a statement issued after the protest on Thursday at Morton
West High School in Berwyn, a working-class suburb just west
of Chicago, the district superintendent, Ben Nowakowski, said
the school's reaction had to do only with the interruption of
the school day, not with the students expressing themselves.

The administration 'did not say that the students could not
protest,' Dr. Nowakowski's statement said. 'Rather, we asked
that the students simply move their protest to an area of the
school that would not disrupt the ability of the other 3,400-
plus students at Morton West to proceed with their normal
school day.'

Dr. Nowakowski did not return repeated calls seeking comment

But several students said the protesters, whose numbers had
dwindled to about 25, obeyed the administration's request to
move from a high-traffic area in the cafeteria to a less-
crowded hall near the principal's office. There, they
intertwined arms, sang along to an acoustic guitar and talked
about how the war was affecting the world, said Matt
Heffernan, a junior who took part.

'We agreed to move to another side of the building,' Matt
said. 'We also made a deal that if we moved there, there
would be no disciplinary action taken upon us.'

Matt said the group had been told that the most severe
punishment would be a Saturday detention for cutting class
that day.

Police officers were on the scene, and Berwyn's police chief,
William Kushner, said no arrests were made. 'It was all very
peaceful and orderly,' he said.

But at the end of the school day, Matt said, Dr. Nowakowski
gave the remaining protesters disciplinary notices stating
that they had engaged in mob action, that they were suspended
for 10 days and that they faced expulsion.

'I was shocked,' said Matt, 16. 'We had the sit-in. So I had
mixed feelings of confidence - of a job well done - and
fright, because my whole educational future is at risk.'

School officials also sent a letter to the parents of all the
school's students calling the protest 'gross disobedience'
and reminding parents that any disruption to the educational
process could lead to expulsion.

On Tuesday, a group of parents went to the school to demand
that their children be allowed return to classes. At most,
the parents said, the protesters' behavior amounted to
loitering, which should be punishable by detention or a
meeting with a guidance counselor.

The parents have also asked that the district provide the
students with some way to express themselves about issues
like the war.

'Who's the next group to go off to war?' said Adam Szwarek,
whose 16-year-old son, Adam, faces expulsion. 'These kids.
The kids do a peaceful sit-in and they're threatened with
expulsion, yet the military's running around the school
trying to recruit.'

Parents also complained that deans, teachers and coaches
singled out certain athletes and honor students and persuaded
them to drop out of the protest.

Rita Maniotis, president of the school's parent-teacher
organization, said the school called her husband to say that
their daughter, Barbara, a junior, was participating in the
protest and that he should come to get her. He did so, and
she was suspended for five days. But other parents were not
called and not able to intervene, Ms. Maniotis said. 'There's
no rhyme or reason to the punishment doled out,' she said.

The executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Illinois, Colleen
K. Connell, said she could not comment on the case because
her organization was investigating to determine whether it
will take it up. In general, public school students have
constitutional rights, she said, but they can be limited in a
school setting.

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