At times last night, officials with the Northwestern High School and the Prince George's County Public School System looked genuinely baffled by how to handle a group of boisterous, reform-minded, Occupy-inspired student activists and community supporters.
School administrators intended to host a forum to address grievances brought up by students who attempted to walk out of school on March 1 as part of a protest for better learning conditions. But control of the dialogue was hotly contested throughout the meeting, with passionate students accusing administrators of dominating the microphone while administrators struggled to maintain decorum.
"It got a little mayhem-ish. I don't know, mayhem is a strong word," said Christine Hinojosa, president of Northwestern High School's Parent Teacher Student Association, after the meeting. "I thought the moderation could have been better. I think it was good to have those points addressed, but I wanted to hear from more students."
School officials were blasted by students and some community members for their suppression of the students' protest and the ensuing suspension of four students accused of organizing the demonstration. Students and members of the public called for the suspensions, which have already been served, to be removed from the record. Administrators refused to discuss the suspensions, saying that appeals would be handled on a case-by-case basis through an established process.
School officials also found themselves defending the steps taken to quash the demonstration while also repeatedly praising the students for having the courage to organize for what they believed in.
Noting this dichotomy, Neil Connor, a teacher at Bladensburg High School present at last night's meeting, said administrators were trying to have it both ways.
"It borders on hypocracy to praise students for their courage and activism and then to suspend them, possibly damaging their future," said Connor, who called upon school administrators to erase the suspensions from the record. "I wish we had students that would stand up, organize and speak out at Bladensburg."
While the March 1 demonstration, conceived of by members of a home-grown student activism group at Northwestern called El Cambio, was initially suppressed by school officials, the students actually won a number of concessions offered by administrators at last night's meeting. Concessions included the creation of a new student-principal advisory council and advance notice of police training activities on campus.
Demonstration Busted on Social Networks
At the outset of the forum, first-year Northwestern High School Principal Edgar Batenga outlined how he came to know of the protest action and how the event disrupted the school day on March 1.
Batenga said that he learned from a staff member on Feb. 29 that a walkout may have been in the works for March 1, organized under the codename "Project Xbox". At this point, Batenga says he alerted his administrative team, including the school resource police officer, of the potential for a disturbance on March 1.
Batenga said a simple search of Twitter for the codeword was all it took to uncover the plot. He noted that some messages were written backwards, perhaps to foil attempts to uncover the plot. Administrators identified two students they say were responsible for organizing the plot on the social network.
On Thursday morning, Batenga warned his teaching staff about the planned demonstration, and says he instructed them not to physically interfere with any students and to keep accurate attendance throughout the day.
If a student was to attempt to walk out, Batenga said their only instruction was to twice order the student back to class.
"The main concern I had was the safety," said Batenga at the meeting. "I needed to make sure that I accounted for every single student during this process."
Meanwhile, the two students who had been identified on Twitter plus two others were at various points the day throughout taken to school offices where administrators asked that they halt the protest.
Ricardo Fuentes, who served a five-day suspension for his involvement in the demonstration, said that he was called to the principal's office shortly before 11 a.m.
"The first thing they told was I'm going to be expelled," said Fuentes in an interview on the night before the forum.
Batenga said that he told the students that their protest actions would set their movement back.
"The actions of the students were going to detract from their concerns," Batenga reported at the meeting. "By doing some of these things, you're putting a lot of people's safety in jeopardy."
Fuentes said he was told to go to every lunch period and encourage people not to take part in the rally. He agreed to do this, but said that the plan already had achieved a kind of inevitable momentum.
The plan, organized with at least some support and guidance from activists the students met at OccupyDC demonstrations, called for a walkout at the 2:40 p.m. bell.
That's when Batenga said chaos erupted in the halls. Students were tossing papers down through the skywalks, running up and down the halls. Batenga said it took about 15-20 minutes to clear the halls.
Batenga rejected accusations that doors were barricaded and that police were called into the school. He said that the only two police officers in the building were School Resource Officer Michael Rudinski and another officer. Rudinski did say that he had to escort from the premises some outside protestors attempting to demonstrate in solidarity with the students.
Batenga and Rudinski both vehemently denied accusations that the extra police were on-hand in anticipation of the walkout. Elsewhere on the property at the time of the protest was a group of about a dozen police officers getting ready for a pre-planned training class hosted in the temporary trailers behind the school. This prompted students to call for more advance notice of police training activities on school grounds, which both Batenga and Rudinski said they would provide.
Going Over Grievances
At last night's meeting, Batenga tried to go over the students' grievances outlined in fliers and on press releases distributed by protesters. On the far side of the stage from the podium, Batenga had assembled a panel which included School Board Member Angela Waller (District 3) and County Council Member Will Campos (District 2) and Joan Shorter, director of food and nutritional services for the county school system.
When it came to student complaints about unsanitary conditions and poor maintenance, Batenga stressed the importance of reporting unsanitary conditions for custodial staff to address.
Batenga also addressed class sizes, saying that he shares the desire for smaller classes.
"My biggest concern is making sure that we open up many of the AP classes and protecting the classroom size," said Batenga. I do not intend to have class sizes above 40 next year. It's tough. I do agree that 40 is probably unmanageable.
Shorter attempted to address grievances about the quality of the food available in the school cafeteria. She pointed to the 50 percent whole grain pizza crust, and the availability of fruits and vegetables on the serving line. She also singled out a complaint about a tooth being found in a piece of hamburger, explaining that sometimes gristle does indeed make its way into ground meat products.
Shorter noted that the school system uses the same ingredients purchased by restaurant chains like McDonalds and Burger King.
Batenga and the panel also attempted to allay concerns about rodents and other pests being found in the schools by pointing to the school system's integrated pest management program which sees every school checked three times per year by the local health department.
About halfway through the meeting, though, the agenda that school administrators had laid out was effectively discarded. Where the forum had been designed for Batenga and administrators to address the grievances before opening up the floor to comments, it had become a sometimes contentious back and forth affair between administrators, students and members of the public.
The panel also tried to explain the real politik behind many of the funding decisions which lie at the root of the students' grievances about teacher pay and school budgets.
Ken Haines, president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association, the union for public school teachers, explained to the students that teachers would be receiving raises next year. He stressed that the teachers' union and the protesters have a lot in common, but that the political leadership at the county and state level have failed to adequately fund the public school system.
"The community has not figured out that we are going to have to fund our schools to bring up everybody," said Haines to the students.
The meeting ended in slight disarray around 6:45 p.m. With students insisting on continuing the meeting until 7 p.m., Batenga shut the meeting down over shouts. The students got up from their seats and began chanting protest slogans.
After Chaos, Cooperation?
By the end of the meeting, some of the student activists and school administrators were stressing that they shared similar goals. But getting over an initial sense of mistrust between the two sides remains an obstacle.
"I feel like they were trying to save face more than they were really trying to work with us," said junior Shane James, one of the four students suspended in the wake of the demonstration. "The administration should have already been aware of the issues, first of all. It's not like they were totally blindsided by the fact that students were upset."
But James held out hope that the two sides could work together to address grievances in more constructive manner.
"We can work together through meaningful dialogue through not saying, oh you are naive students, this is how the system works," said James. "We want to change the way the system works. Why would we work according to the system's rules? We would like to work with you, but we'd like to edit it so that teachers, parents and students have much greater say in the educational system."
William Alvarado, a senior suspended in the wake of the March 1 demonstration, said that El Cambio plans to continue its activism. Some events they are planning for the future include a lobbying day in Annapolis and a human microphone in the school cafeteria.
"We want something like a forum like this to happen at school, but I think the administration would be really scared," said Alvarado. "This was a good thing, getting to hear from the average student."