Officials claim student actions offer some lessons
By Emma Stickgold, Globe Correspondent, 3/9/2003
The challenge raised by last week's protest, they said, was this: how to encourage a healthy, democratic debate about the war without sanctioning students cutting school to do it.
At Needham High School, 40 students left classes for the last two blocks of the day Wednesday to march in circles around the school, carrying signs and shouting antiwar epithets. Assistant principal Maureen White said these students, without exception, will receive at least one hour of detention.
Teachers at the high school plan to discuss civic action, including student walkouts, during their regularly scheduled extended homeroom Wednesday.
"We'll talk about perhaps more appropriate ways, which would be to write letters to representatives in Congress," White said. "It's a very teachable moment about civil disobedience."
Warned of similar consequences if they skipped class, about 200 Newton students walked out of school early Wednesday morning, holding a rally that lasted several rainy hours outside Newton City Hall. The protest sparked a lively debate at a Newton North High School faculty meeting, according to principal Jennifer Huntington, who said that students had approached her, hoping to gain an endorsement for staging the demonstration.
"A lot of the faculty remember the marches of the '60s and '70s, and for them it's deja vu. But they see it as a new generation because they are in a sense asking for permission," Huntington said, explaining how she told students she could not endorse their walkout.
At Newton South High School, principal Michael Welch said the school has yet to put together a plan for how to hand out disciplinary action, because attendance results have not been compiled. He said the day was a challenge for school officials.
"We're in the difficult position of letting them know they have every right to organize, but not condoning things that clearly cannot be supported," he said.
Although their attempts to gain the endorsement of their principals failed, some Newton students expressed satisfaction overall with how their school handled their violation of school policy, while others said they hoped for more support.
"I think they're supportive," said Jamie-Lee Lefevre, a Newton South junior. Lefevre said she received parental permission to attend the rally, as many of her peers did, and will not have to attend detention.
But Newton North junior Zack Summit said that although he found teachers were generally supportive, he hoped administrators would have been more accommodating.
"We've not been impressed at all with how the school's handled this," he said, noting that rally organizers were not allowed to hang fliers on the school's walls.
Meanwhile, students at other area schools found ways to participate in the nationwide protest without leaving classes or violating school policy.
At Medfield High School, 15 students wore hand-painted green T-shirts with white block lettering that read "Books not bombs." Several students, after carefully researching their rights and asking permission from administrators, handed out two-page, double-sided leaflets they composed.
"They were proud of us for doing something," said Zoe Samels, a Medfield High School junior.
Students at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School wore yellow ribbons to show their contempt for war.
"They were very visible and prevalent," said John Ritchie, the school's principal.
Not every high school saw quite the same level of activism last week.
At Hopkinton High School, principal Dorothy Gould said students discuss the war in a current events class, but activism on either side of the issue is not something she has seen.
"I'd say it's real quiet," she said. "It hasn't hit here yet."
At Milford High School, said principal John Brucato, "our instructors are using every opportunity to allow students to express concerns, fears, etc."
Brucato said he does not think Milford students lean toward any particular view of the war.
"Activism here is something that is remote at best," he said.
The debate over war that raged among students nationwide last week has flourished at area schools for weeks.
Frank Roth, who heads Framingham High School's history and social science department, said a group of students meets weekly after school to discuss the pros and cons of war with Iraq.
"I am really impressed with how the meetings are run," he said. "I guess they don't need to stage a walkout; their opinions are heard and respected in the community."