- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

A number of people were so offended when D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams publicly told them to “keep

your butts home” during Hurricane Isabel that they called me not only to comment on what they perceived to be his disrespectful demeanor but also to suggest that he take his own advice.

“He’s the one who needs to stay home,” said one Northwest native.

Speaking of butting out, the resident critics also want the mayor to keep his power-grabbing paws off the D.C. school system and its nearly $800 million coffers.

“He can’t control what he’s got now,” said a D.C. caller, who did not want to be identified. But it’s no secret that his sentiments are shared by countless others, including union organizer Roger Newell, who said. “The mayor doesn’t care about public education, but he can come up with the money for a baseball stadium.”

That disturbing contradiction was the rallying cry at the “Full Funding for Public Schools” protest at Freedom Plaza on Tuesday afternoon, according to Mr. Newell, Iris Toyer of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, Gemma Smith of the Student Campaign for School Safety and other grass-roots participants who contend that the mayor does not represent their wishes with his initiatives, particularly vouchers, when it comes to fully supporting public schools.

Unfortunately, one group of D.C. residents specifically affected by the political game being played by local and national elected officials involving the city’s schools did not get to raise their voices as loudly as they had planned during the rally.

That would be D.C. high school students themselves.

“You wouldn’t believe all the commotion that was caused by this walkout,” said Alicia Gilmore of the student-led Youth Education Alliance, a member of the coalition calling itself the DCPS Full-Funding Campaign.

D.C. high school students planned for months to stage a noon walkout as part of the full-funding rally Tuesday to protest cuts to the school system’s budget that they contend have forced them to attend classes in crumbling buildings, with old textbooks, poor food and “teachers, and custodial staff, who deserve a raise,” Ms. Gilmore said.

“We felt full funding is an issue we should take on just like we did with the bathrooms,” said Ms. Gilmore, a youth leader who attends Howard University. However, based on accounts by several organizers and students, principals at several high schools — including Cardozo, Wilson and Banneker — took extraordinary steps to prevent students from leaving the buildings by barring and locking doors, placing security officers around the perimeters and making announcements threatening students with 25-day suspensions, detentions and even incarceration.

Petitions and fliers were circulated in schools around Sept. 15 and letters about the walkout were sent to parents with permission slips attached, said Ms. Gilmore and Ms. Smith, a staff organizer with the Young Women’s Project. A parent escort was assigned to each high school to accompany students who wanted to participate.

Why, when this walkout came as no surprise to school officials? If nothing else, the well-organized student-led walkout was a missed learning opportunity in civic engagement. Shouldn’t adults and educators welcome students’ attempts to take a stand on an important issue that affects them, particularly when adults and educators are so quick to criticize this generation for being apathetic and disengaged?

At least one middle school teacher, Elizabeth Davis, feels it’s a good thing for “students to make a public statement.”

“I wonder if our curriculum structure encourages students to question things that are wrong … or are we training them to be second-class citizens?” she asked. To ensure that students would not face retaliation, the organizers checked school dismissal rules and enlisted the help of Mr. Newell to get the principals’ union to send letters to high school principals in support of the students’ action.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t get students into trouble,” Ms. Smith said.

But, Ms. Gilmore said students were being punished or threatened for their participation “when they were coming out to do something not just for themselves but for the good for all D.C. schools.” She was shocked as she stood by one Banneker High School student organizer, who had student permission slips taken away from her, as students attempted to leave the building. Tiffany Richardson, a 10th-grader at Cardozo, said she was mistakenly suspended in the lunchtime confusion. She had gone to school with her mother to have an earlier suspension rescinded.

“I’m concerned about my friends who were participating,” she said yesterday during a telephone interview. “There are things that need to change like rats and roaches being in our food.” Ms. Smith said at least three of the teenage girls in her program who attend Cardozo reported that they were also suspended, and students at Wilson used their cell phones to report that they could not get out of the building.

A D.C. schools spokesman said yesterday that school policy dictates that once students enter the building they are the school’s responsibility and are not allowed to leave until dismissal unless they have a parent’s written permission. He could not comment on the accounts of intimidation.

As Ms. Davis, a technology teacher at the John Philip Sousa Middle School and a member of the Washington Teachers Union mobilization committee, said, “It’s troubling when you hear the word ‘lockdown’ in a school.”

(Talk about confusion. D.C. teachers threatened a “job action” such as a strike if they did not get their court-ordered 9 percent pay raises by Oct. 2. But Ms. Davis points out that no one knows when those increases will be forthcoming now that the Board of Education has said it would honor them even though it does not have the funds, and the mayor and D.C. Council have agreed to find $20 million only if the board gives up its line-item budget autonomy, and/or Congress ever gets around to passing the District’s appropriations bill that is being held up, in part, by the voucher wrangling.)

Meanwhile, D.C. public school students continue to be at the mercy of adults and educators who put their own agendas above the children’s concerns. And those are the folks who just ought to butt out and stay home.

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