Two weeks ago, when Ballou High School principal Dennis Johnson threatened to cancel homecoming, he had no idea his decision would cause a storm of protest, including a student walkout. But when it did, he didn't back down.
Johnson told pupils that homecoming, traditionally held on a Friday afternoon, would either be held on a Saturday or not at all.It had become much too disruptive to be held on a school day, he said.
"It will be [on a] Saturday," he reiterated from the stands last Friday as he watched Spingarn High School's football team battle Ballou, "or it will be no day. It's not homecoming, it's open house. And Dr. Johnson doesn't have open house."
Waving his hands and stamping his feet against the fall cold, Johnson recited a litany of his complaints about student behavior at extracurricular activities in general.
"Kids ran around all day today because it's a football day. I had a car full of drunken girls in my parking lot that I had to get rid of. I had a man older than me drinking a six-pack of beer in the stands. I had to put him out.
"They tore a door up over there," he said, waving an arm at a side door, "just to get into a football game. A football game. They can party all they want, but not on school time. We won't have any woolly-bully-running-around-wild stuff in here."
homecoming is worse, he said, because students refuse to concentrate on their work throughout the entire week preceding the activities, and disrupt the work of the surrounding junior high and elementary schools as well.
On Oct. 2, Johnson informed student government leaders that he would not permit the traditional homecoming parade and football game to be held on a Friday. Too many students cut afternoon classes to prepare for the 3 p.m. game, he said, and throughout the day, disruptive outsiders are drawn to school grounds, located at 4th and Trenton streets SE.
Outraged, students unleashed a protest. At stake, they said, was their right to maintain a tradition enjoyed by predecessors as well as high schoolers around the city.
"Ever since I was a little boy, I looked forward to having a homecoming," said a passionate Randolph Ivey, a junior math and science major who serves as assistant to the president of the Student Government Association. "It wouldn't be fair for other schools to have one and we not to have one. How would that look?"
At a meeting Oct. 7 to announce the decision, members of the senior class booed Johnson so loudly that he left the stage. Last Wednesday, about 100 students, according to Johnson, boycotted their first period classes in protest and carried placards up Southeast's Trenton Street which said, "Ballou Students Want A Homecoming."
Regional Superintendent Reuben Pierce, whose office oversees Ballou High School, said that he had not heard of problems in other schools as a result of homecoming, though he said that he had found the activities "somewhat disruptive" when he headed Ballou from 1974 to 1977.
Johnson feels that's an understatement. "Every school in this city that has a homecoming has a problem," he said. "Everybody who says they don't is a liar."
Johnson acknowledged the students' interest in the continuity of traditions -- to a point. But his decision comes in the wake of the city's increased emphasis on better school security as well as on improvement in student performance in the aftermath of severe budget cuts.
Last sring, Superintendent Vincent Reed testified at a Congressional hearing in support of an expanded security force for the schools. Last month a student at Spingarn High School was shot and killed by a fellow student during a school assembly.
Johnson's most recent edict follows another unpopular decision from last year, when he banned all dances on school grounds at Ballou, the city's math and science high school.
"Where I grew up, we did not have [homecoming]. It's a Southern sort of thing," said Johnson, who was reared in Pennsylvania. "I'm not jealous of the students' having a homecoming . . . But my responsibility is to see that they have a good day of learning every day . . . Anything that deprives my boys and girls of an education, I am not going to have."
Some students admit homecoming is a time of -- to say the least -- relaxed discipline. "I'll be truthful about it -- I do cut classes," said junior Penny Powell.
"But what's half a day in the whole year? Well, what's a day? Besides," she added, making a point underscored by other students, "It'll make it worse for us because it'll be real crowded and a lot of confusion and more fights."
"Having it on Saturday," said student government treasurer Reginald Dailey, "means that all the other people from the other schools will come here 'cause half of them don't have nothing to do."
"And Saturday and Sunday are the only days I've go to work," chimed in Randolph Ivey. "It'll be costing me money."
Johnson dismissed students' fears about security. "The Seventh (police) District will take care of that," he said.
And members of the school's security staff who patrolled Friday's football game agreed with him. "This is the best year we've ever had in the last 10 years," said investigator Mercyl Miller. "and that's because we've finally got somebody speaking out. He's brought unity to the school. Now the halls are clear; you can see from one end to the other."
Not all students are persisting in the demand for a Friday homecoming. Senior class president Florence Price said she had decided to risk her classmates' disapproval in order to support Johnson. And many students would rather have a Saturday homecoming than none at all.
As it stands, homecoming will take place the first Saturday that Johnson can find a team willing and able to play on that day. But as far as the Saturday rule is concerned, he said, there will be no appeal.
"We are 300 points below Maryland and Virginia in the SATs, and they have [homecoming] on Saturdays," he insisted. "I want the best for my students because they are living in a difficult world.
"They may not know it," he added. "But these days, young folks want to tell me what to do. And there are," he said emphatically, "NO days like that at Ballou."