War talk swept Loudoun County schools this week, as students huddled around radios and computers to catch the latest news between classes, teachers used the conflict to teach history and anti-war protests or rumors of protests hit some schools.
At Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, more than 40 students walked out Thursday, joining thousands of students nationwide who left their schools to show their displeasure with the war. The students gathered in the school's electronic classroom to talk about their plans with Principal Kenneth W. Culbert before heading into the rain for a 20-minute discussion around the school's flagpole.
Students said Culbert had warned them he might suspend them for the protest, but he ultimately greeted them with towels and a warm room. He sentenced the group to attend a school beautification day one Saturday in May to plant trees, prompting them to applaud at the light punishment.
"We all knew the consequences, and we were prepared to take them," said Jessica Stoddard, 17, one of the organizers.
Still, students said emotions at the school were riding high. Stoddard said students opposed to the walkout had ripped down anti-war fliers in the halls as fast as she could hang them.
Kyle Ott, 17, said many students felt the protesters' actions were disrespectful. Ott, who said he was not sure whether he supported military action, nevertheless said he opposed protesting given that troops overseas have no ability to protest.
He wore a T-shirt Friday that read: "They go there so that you can exercise your right to walkout." Daniel Ceo, 17, wore an armband in protest of the war.
Jim Person, principal of Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, said he thought many schools had been swept by rumors of possible walkouts. Person met with Stone Bridge students considering such action, but the group decided there might be more substantive ways to respond to the war than a protest during school hours. He said students were considering holding some kind of symposium on war issues or working with humanitarian efforts.
"We talked about a walkout, how it gets you a couple of moments to express your view, but it also has the chance to be very divisive," he said. "The irony is we may end up doing something with a lot of kids with a whole lot of different viewpoints."
Teachers elsewhere used the military action in Iraq to spark classroom discussion, and students were following the news closely.
Teacher Dan Kent led his AP World History students at Broad Run High School in a wide-ranging discussion of the war that flirted between historical allusions and events of the past few days. Kent's students echoed the ambivalence of many adults in the rest of the country. A majority of the class said they thought that going after Saddam Hussein was the correct move. Yet a majority also said they thought that the U.S. government had misledthe public about the level of threat posed by Iraq during the buildup to war. Exactly half said they thought that the war would help to protect them from terrorism.
Alex Gallo, 15, said the war became real to her only Wednesday night. Lying in bed, listening to a jet pass close overhead on its way to Dulles International Airport, Gallo said the possibility of new terrorism seemed very real. "I thought, what if this is the last time I see my bed?"
Educators have been watching children closely for signs of stress from the war talk. At Cedar Lane Elementary School in Ashburn, counselors formed a support network for children who have family members deployed with the military. The group, Children Uniting in Brave Situations, or CUBS, met Friday for the first time to talk about their fears for family.
"It helps them to know they have support from other kids their age. It's not just older adults telling them it's going to be okay," said school counselor Shereen Khedr.