About 2,000 students left their classes at Bowie Senior High School yesterday to attend a rally protesting proposed budget cuts that could threaten some of their language, sports and special education programs.
The students, whose 90-minute absence from classes and exams was authorized by principal John M. Hagan, crowded into bleachers around the school football field and alternately cheered calls for teacher raises and jeered defenders of the proposed 1980 budget for Prince George's County schools.
Yesterday's Bowie rally and two smaller ones at nearly junior high schools marked the first time that large groups of students have stepped into the months-old bitter debate over school spending.
"They [county officials] are just picking on school kids," Bowie junior Donna Diorio said as the rally was breaking up at about 12:30 yesterday. "They're using us."
One student carried a sign proclaiming: "To Whom It May Concern (and Larry Hogan). Education is for the students. Please don't forget it."
The students applauded when teachers' union president Toby Rich described his fight to get County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan to agree to a 5 percent pay raise for teachers. They hooted when Rich, blasting proposed budget cuts, said, "Education is Mr. Hogan's personal hydrant."
And, when Hogan's representive Ed Sealover got up to argue that the proposed 1980 school budget represents a $9 million increase over 1979's he was greeted with heckling cries of "Cut your pay."
The rally provoked Hogan to issue a statement castigating teachers for having "used the children as pawns, lecturing to captive audiences on their demands for higher salaries."
Hogan's statement added that, "I think it is unfortunate that employes of the public school system are taking advantage of students and school time to promote their own selfish interests."
School Board member Angelo Castelli called the rally "purely and simply politically motivated . . . [it] should have been stopped." He said he will ask schools Supt. Edward J. Feeney to censure the principal who allowed students to leave classes.
Hogan yesterday defended his action, saying that holding the rally was necessary to avoid a student walkout, even though it meant canceling some classes and some senior exams. Students who missed those exams, he said can make them up today, and those students who didn't wish to attend the rally had the option of remaining in class.
Not many did; roughly 2,000 of the school's 2,800 students went to the rally. Another 600 were absent from school all day.
Hagan and the principals of two nearby junior high schools - Belair and Benjamin Tasker - said they feared threatened walkouts would result in mass suspensions of 700 to 750 students who joined a walkout last Friday at J.E.B. Stuart High School to support Fairfax County teacher raises.
Hagan said the walkout threat surfaced last Friday, when leaflets began circulating at Bowie High. The leaflets called for a walkout May 30 to protest cuts of varsity sports, proms and foreign languages. Hagan said as far as he knew no teachers participated in the preparation of the leaflets.
Hagan then met with student leaders, who organized the rally in the hopes of forestalling a walkout. They invited the speakers, timing the rally to coincide with one class period and lunch.
What the students heard at the rally was a combination of rhetoric and civics lessons. The speakers - including Rich, Sealover, two county councilmen, and representatives from the school board and superintendent's office - talked of dollars and percentages.
They emphasized that it is up to the board, which will meet this Monday night, to decide where to make the $10 million in cuts needed to bring the proposed budget totals down to the $278 million level approved by the county council.
The school board already has drawn up a tentative list of $9 million in budget cuts that includes elimination of summer school in 1981 and cutbacks in organized junior high school sports and evening high school classes. More recently, school board chairman Norman Saunders suggested eliminating most foreign language classes.
But 200 students who milled around the field after the speakers had finished voiced fears that their favorite classes would be cut or overcrowded, and regrets that 10 of their teachers are going to be transferred away. CAPTION: Picture, Bowie High School student Darryll Wright addresses rally of 2,000 students protesting P.G. school budget cuts. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post