A controversy is simmering at after four students were suspended for organizing an Occupy-inspired protest which tried to get hundreds of students to walk out of class in the middle of the school day.
The protest was organized by El Cambio, a social justice student group named for the spanish word for Change and recognized by Northwestern High School. The walkout protest was to be a part of March 1's National Day of Action for Eduction, intended to protest for better school conditions.
But the protest had been stifled, organizers say, when school security officials figured out the true meaning of the "Project Xbox" codeword which was being used to plan the event.
Administrators at Northwestern High School will hold a meeting tonight to discuss the response to the protest. In addition to the four suspensions, protest organizers say school officials used police to prevent students from walking out. School officials dispute this, telling The Washington Post that no police were inside the school and that extra officers were on hand for a training session with the school resource officer.
Bryan Ward, a 25-year-old Silver Spring resident who works at a bike shop, also met members of El Cambio at OccupyDC demonstrations. After helping the students organize the day-of-action, Ward joined a group of about 20 people who planned to demonstrate in solidarity with the students on the other side of Adelphi Road from the school as the walkout began.
"When I got there around 2:30, the meeting was at 2:40, I noticed it seemed like the school was on lockdown," said Ward. "There were police cars at every entrance to the parking lot."
Ward said that he was surprised at the large police presence considering that the students were protesting for school improvements like higher teacher pay and demanding an apology for the mistreatment of Fillipino teachers working in the school system on visas.
One of the students who helped organized the event, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect himself from punishment, said that he was threatened with expulsion if the protest went on. Administrators pulled students from class and pressed them to speak with their peers in person and on social media networks to halt the event.
But when the appointed time came, Northwestern High School Principal Edgar Batenga tells The Washington Post that dozens of students tried to walkout, creating chaos in the hallways.
"Any protest, if you look at it, is kind of disrupting in a way," said the student organizer. "These are concrete issues that go on in our schools. We felt like, that, we can always go to the principal and complain and say these things are going on and try to fix it…nothing happened. So, let's take it into our hands and see what happens."
Zach Zill, an activist who met El Cambio members at OccupyDC demonstrations, has been working as an informal press agent for the Northwestern student activists, listing himself as a contact in press releases and announcements about the incident. He said that after meeting Northwestern High School students he was invited to speak to members of El Cambio about organizing and social justice.
"I was one of the first non-students to help organize something to bring to light what happened to them," said Zill.
Zill said that students reported administrators and teachers using cell phones to film anyone attempting to leave school grounds. Anyone caught on camera, the students reported, were told they would be suspended.
"There were a lot of students involved in this day of action," said Zill. "Not just people in El Cambio."
For now, the students who planned on protesting for better school funding, higher teacher pay and immigrant rights, are planning on protesting the suspensions of the four students. They want the suspensions, which have already been served, to be taken off their school records.
Tonight's meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Northwestern High School.