Thousands of Washington area students walked out of high schools yesterday to protest the war, rain soaking their "What Would Gandhi Do?" T-shirts but not drowning out their chants.
In groups of 10 or 100 -- or at least 1,000 in the case of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring -- students at dozens of schools marched and shouted similar refrains, such as, "Hey hey, ho ho, we won't kill for Texaco!"
First, though, many sought assurances that they wouldn't get in trouble.
They expression passion about the issue. But before they walked out, wary of detention, they negotiated for hours in advance with principals about whether absences would be excused (most weren't), whether they'd get permission slips (some did) and which patch of school property they'd stay within.
As the teenagers prepared via online message boards -- the Internet helped make organization manageable -- at times they talked more about methods than about message. Even in protest, they bemoaned the fact that their demonstrations came with any consequence at all.
At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where about 150 students shivered in the rain, they shouted along with peace studies teacher Coleman McCarthy as he alternated chants of "We want peace!" with "We want the auditorium!"
While a classmate with a peace sign painted on his face shouted, "Terrorists aren't in Iraq, they're in D.C.!" into a school-provided megaphone, freshman Lauren Padgett, 15, paged through a soaked set of Montgomery County student rules to find where it says that if they get permission, students can protest and still be excused from class.
"Take that!" Lauren said of her principal. "Oh wait. Don't tell her I said that."
About 150 students walked out of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria during the morning Pledge of Allegiance, gathered in front of the flagpole and at one point tried to lower the school's flag to half-staff, they said, until the principal intervened. If they went back to class after 90 minutes, they were told, they would only be held accountable for an unexcused absence
"We didn't expect this much of a turnout,'' said 18-year-old Mark Tenney, a junior. "People knew they could possibly get in trouble."
But not too much trouble. Today's protesters, unlike their counterparts of four decades ago, generally have the support of their elders. Don Clausen, Annandale High School principal, chuckles at the thought of students asking his advice on how to orchestrate a protest. "I was in the school system back during the Vietnam War, and we would just walk out," he said.
There were far more students who stayed in class yesterday than left. Among those who oppose the war, several blamed the rain or the unexcused absence.
Brian Hernandez, a 16-year-old junior who walked out of Magruder High School in Rockville, said his generation is so sheltered -- no draft, no segregation -- that they don't feel compelled to risk harsh consequences in order to have their say. Besides, he said, they don't need to. "If we can do it and not get in trouble," he said, "then why not do it and not get in trouble?"
Their style, far more subdued than during Vietnam War protests, mirrors the antiwar demonstrations adults have had recently, in which organizers secure permits and for the most part comply with police demands to keep things orderly. The students at a recent Maryland student council convention seemed vociferous about the possibility of war, but not compared to the next topic that came up: a bill in the state legislature to restrict teenage driving privileges.
Certainly some students proved willing to risk greater consequences to protest the war. About 40 students from Friendship-Edison Collegiate Academy, a public charter school in Northeast Washington, slipped past security guards at the front and side doors and headed for the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, where they hopped a train to protest across from the White House.
"They threatened us with 25 days of suspension, but that's against our freedom of speech," said Dominique Vinson, 16, of the Petworth section of Northwest Washington. She said the students would seek help from the lawyer-husband of one of their teachers if the school sought to punish them.
Her classmate Monique Dancy, 17, had never attended a political demonstration and was euphoric about taking part. "We are standing up for what we believe in," she said. "This is what we felt we had to do."
Across the region, many students have found that even if their school administrators did not agree with their beliefs, the adults agreed, tacitly or aloud, that it was important to express them.
When organizers at Northwest High School in Hyattsville wanted to draw all 2,600 students outside two weeks ago to stage an antiwar demonstration along Adelphi Road, Principal Bill Ritter said they'd be held responsible if anyone got hurt. He encouraged them to consider an indoor assembly. Students were told they'd get an unexcused absence but were permitted to "seize control" of the auditorium, for an 800-student event in which staff members helped with lights and Power Point presentations.
In Purcellville yesterday, Loudoun Valley High School Principal Kenneth W. Culbert told returning protesters that they'd have to attend Saturday school and help plant trees on the grounds. As he handed them towels to dry off, he said he'd plant trees with them, too.