- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

A Montgomery County high school that closed for more than a week after last month's snowstorm excused students from afternoon classes yesterday so they could participate in an anti-war walkout.
About 400 students showed up for the afternoon assembly in the cafeteria of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. The students cheered anti-war remarks made from a podium microphone set up in a corner of the cafeteria.
The students then walked out of the building into the sunshine and marched in front of the school, behind a colorful canvas banner that read "Promote the peace." The students chanted anti-war slogans and carried signs that read "No blood for oil" and "Books not bombs" before ending the rally at 2 p.m. in time for the 2:10 p.m. dismissal.
"I think peace starts right here," said Isabelle Carbonell, a 17-year-old senior who organized the event. A self-described activist, Isabelle said she was upset that a war with Iraq could divert funds from education and promote terrorist activity against the United States.
A few counterprotesters also participated in the walkout. They chanted "USA" and held signs that read "One decade of Saddam is enough."
Isabelle said she came up with the idea about the rally last week and pitched it to the school's principal, Kevin Maxwell. "Our administration was very cooperative," she said.
Mr. Maxwell, a Navy veteran, said that he never dealt with a protest at the school, but that county policy allowed students to demonstrate peacefully.
School staff "must respect the rights of students to assemble for discussions of issues of importance to them and to demonstrate peacefully," says the Montgomery County Public Schools Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook. The rules also allow students "to be excused from class during the activity."
"I felt like they had a viable plan, a viable agenda," Mr. Maxwell said.
He said several parents questioned him about the protest after hearing about it from their children. He said he didn't send a letter home alerting parents to the protest because he didn't want an appearance that the administration was endorsing or encouraging the demonstration.
Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison said the demonstration was "a local principal's decision, if he felt this was in some way an educational experience."
While most of the students participated in the protest, not all who attended had politics on their mind. Some students socialized in small groups while others played cards. One student played an acoustic guitar.
Rules governing student demonstrations vary among local school districts.
The Code of Student Conduct in Prince George's County states that "causing a disruption to the atmosphere of order and discipline necessary for effective learning" is a "gross misconduct."
Students in Fairfax County may express themselves through speech, assembly and petition, says the county's Student Responsibilities and Rights handbook. But the handbook does not mention whether protests are allowed during class or if they are considered excused absences.
Mr. Maxwell said one of his concerns was more lost class time. Students throughout the county have missed 10 days of school because of heavy snowfall. "This is not about closing Walter Johnson High School at all," he said. "Class time was an issue. I think what went on this afternoon was certainly an educational experience."
He also said teachers were told to continue with classes in case students chose not to attend the protest. Almost all of the classrooms in at least one hallway were empty.

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