A recent antiwar protest by students at Morton West High School in Berwyn, Ill., has galvanized antiwar activists in nearby Chicago and across the country in support of the students’ right to free speech.
Some 25 students are facing severe disciplinary action following a peaceful November 1 lunchtime protest in their school cafeteria. The demonstration included as many as 70 students in all, who linked arms, sang songs and talked about how the war has affected the world.
In response, school officials have charged the students with “gross disobedience and mob activity” with 5- and 10-day suspensions as punishments–and the threat of possible expulsions to come.
But students and their supporters immediately protested the administrators’ crackdown, holding press conferences and organizing people to attend a November 7 district school board meeting.
At that meeting, District 201 Superintendent Ben Nowakowski defended the punishments, saying that the students disrupted the educational process and threatened the safety of others. “The cafeteria was required to be shut down, and students were held in their classrooms, causing a major disturbance to the school day,” Nowakowski read from a prepared statement. “Protesting in the cafeteria rather than outside the school created an environment in the cafeteria which could have caused harm to many people.”
But Nowakowski’s version of events is a fraud, according to others who were on the scene. Morton West High School teacher Gale Holmlund, for example, told board members that her classroom and others at the school weren’t disrupted in any way.
Jonathon Acevedo, one of the students facing expulsion, told the Chicago Tribune, “We weren’t violent in any way. We were holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ and the song ‘Give Peace a Chance.’”
The students say they even obeyed the administration’s request to move the protest from the cafeteria to a hall near the principal’s office–and were promised in return that they wouldn’t face severe punishment. “We agreed to move to another side of the building,” student Matt Heffernan told the New York Times. “We also made a deal that if we moved there, there would be no disciplinary action taken upon us.”
Students and parents are also angry that some student protesters seem to have been given preferential treatment by the school if they were athletes or had high grade point averages. During the protest, some parents were selectively called by school officials to pick up their children, leaving the remaining protesters to face the possibility of harsher punishments.
Parent Rita Maniotis, for example, said her daughter Barbara participated in the protest, but was given a 5-day suspension and doesn’t face the threat of expulsion–because she is an honor student. “This entire incident is outrageous,” Maniotis said. “The school missed out on a wonderful teachable moment. Instead, they cracked down on them right away and turned it into a punitive situation.”
School officials have also reportedly threatened some students with harsher punishments if they didn’t identify organizers.
According to Acevedo’s aunt Gladys Hansen-Guerra, “It was a group effort [but] they’re trying to offer leniency to those who point out the organizers. This isn’t a fascist state. [School officials] aren’t the CIA. These are 16-year-old kids.”
Parent Adam Szwarek, whose 16-year-old son, also named Adam, faces expulsion, described the stakes for the students.
“Who’s the next group to go off to war? These kids,” he said. “The kids do a peaceful sit-in, and they’re threatened with expulsion, yet the military’s running around the school trying to recruit.”
Joshua Rodriguez, a suspended senior, told the Tribune, “I thought the school would support us. They teach us civil rights, but then they pummel us down.”
In response to this attack on the right to protest, supporters of the students and antiwar activists have begun to mobilize.
At a press conference a few days after the protest, students, parents and supporters delivered a letter to Superintendent Nowakowski’s office. Signed by parents, it says: “We support a safe and productive learning environment in the school, but we also understand that our children are thinking individuals and a reflection of the larger society. They were expressing the view of an overwhelming majority of Americans that the Iraq War is wrong…
“There was no violence, no property damage and the students cleaned up after themselves. They showed themselves to be truly committed to a peaceful world. We believe that these are exactly the students needed to achieve and maintain a safe and productive school environment…[W]e will not permit any one of these students’ educational future to be so undeservedly destroyed.”
As Socialist Worker went to press, a rally and press conference was held in the Morton West parking lot, with members of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and other activists.
Rainbow/PUSH has said it will file a lawsuit if the threatened expulsions aren’t rescinded and the students’ records expunged. “This was just young people with a high consciousness, trying to say we need to save lives,” said Rev. Gregory Livingston.
The response from the school district? “We won’t engage these demagogues,” declared Dan Proft, a spokesman for School District 201.
It turns out, however, that Proft is hardly unbiased himself. He’s a known Republican Party strategist, a frequent commentator on local right-wing talk radio and–naturally–an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, local antiwar activists are vowing to continue building support for the students. As disabled Gulf War veteran Cesar Ruvalcaba, dressed in his military uniform, told the school board, “Shame on the administrators who think receiving military money from recruiters is more important than the education of their students…These kids should receive extra credit for speaking up, not expulsion.”