One week, Shane James, an honor roll student at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County, was lauded for his political activism.
The next, he was removed from classes for attempting to effect change.
Northwestern Principal Edgar Batenga suspended James, 16, and three other students on March 1 for organizing a walkout to increase teacher pay, improve the quality of education and demand an apology to Filipino teachers who will lose their jobs because their visas will expire.
“We were trying to be politically active and show our concern for education,” said Boris Mitiuriev, 18, a senior who planned to participate in the walkout. “It’s just outrageous.”
The suspensions have created a firestorm. Many, including community leaders and Occupy protesters, argue that the students’ rights to free speech and to assemble appear to have been violated. They are demanding that the suspensions be removed from the students’ permanent records.
“I am really upset,” said Danielle Duvall, James’s mother. “My son didn’t do anything that was illegal or wrong. He’s not a troublemaker. He’s one of the good guys.”
Batenga said the students received a five-day suspension because they incited a disruption.
The students spent months planning the walkout, and they had more than 400 members of the 2,274-member student body prepared to participate.
According to the plan, the demonstrators were to meet outside at 2:40 p.m., at the end of third period. No one showed up, however, because Batenga, a first-year principal, had squashed the plans that day. He became aware of the planned demonstration the night before and made an early morning announcement instructing students not to participate.
The principal said that even though students did not exit the building, several dozen left their classes, causing a “major issue” in the hallways.
James and the three students were not among them. At the time, they were in the principal’s office.
Batenga said he identified two people he thought had organized the demonstration, based on Twitter feeds, and brought them into the office. They offered the name of another student, he said. James went to the office after learning that his friends had been called in. Before third period was over, they tweeted that “Project XBox,” the code name for the walkout, was “dead,” the principal said.
Batenga said he made his decision to suspend the students based on the school system’s policies and procedures, which allow him to suspend for “inciting others to disturbance and/or violence.”
“My intention was never to suppress anyone’s viewpoint,” Batenga said.
One of the suspended students, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was concerned about additional punishment, said he was not surprised that he was called to the principal’s office, a first for him.
“I read history, and I know activists are not the most loved people,” he said. “I knew they would try to intimidate me.”
As of press time, The Washington Post was unable to confirm the identities of the other two suspended students and contact them for comment.
According to the school system, students have a right “to assemble and to demonstrate at such times and in such places within the school building or upon school grounds as the principal of the school may approve.”
School board member Amber Waller (District 3) did not respond to a request for comment, but the student member of the school board expressed sympathy for the students.
“While I understand the authority and purpose of the school’s administration and its actions, I think the right to protest is essential to avoid tyranny,” Faith Jackson said in an e-mail to community leaders. “I, of course, have to hear both sides of the story, but I think that sometimes extreme measures are necessary to prove a point.”
The school hosted a forum Monday evening to discuss the walkout and the principal’s response.
“They said they were concerned about riots and people’s health and safety,” Mitiuriev said. “This wasn’t Occupy London. It’s not Egypt, where people are throwing rocks at the military.”
Students said school officials used police to deter them from leaving the school. Batenga said there were more officers at the school because the school resource officer was conducting a training that day. No officers were inside the building at the time set for the walkout, he said.
Northwestern High, with its big campus in Hyattsville not far from the University of Maryland, has a long history of activism. Student groups have backed the state Dream Act, legislation that grants in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants, and have spoken out against teen dating violence. Last year, students and community leaders staged a counterprotest to a rally by Westboro Baptist Church members.
Occupy Education — a coalition of Occupy, labor and community groups — designated March 1 as the National Student Day of Action. Students across the country tailored their demonstrations to address specific issues affecting their schools.
“I just hope that in the future, there is positive communication about educational issues with students and the administration, not just here, but across the country,” said James, a gangly junior who has maintained a 4.5 weighted grade-point average over the past two semesters.
James, who has an internship at the University of Maryland, has participated in Occupy protests and helped organize the counterprotest against Westboro last year, he said. During a recent ceremony to salute honor roll students and those with high attendance records, James was applauded for his academics, leadership and activism. Now, he is hoping that he and his friends can put the suspension behind them. “I don’t like that my friends were unfairly punished,” he said.
And even though the protest did not happen as planned, he said, “Project Fail” — which is what some students are now calling the walkout — achieved what it set out to do. “The goal of the walkout was to politicize the community and to start a dialogue,” he said. “I think it was a success. The community is engaged, not just about the response, but about the issues that we brought up.”