Anti-war and free-speech advocates joined angry parents and students in their battle with Berwyn school district officials who may expel a group of students who took part in an Iraq war protest at a school last week.
The lunchtime protest Nov. 1 in the Morton West High School cafeteria was viewed as a peaceful sit-in by students, but school officials charged two dozen of them with "gross disobedience and mob activity," which call for suspensions and possible expulsions.
The activists joined parents, students and teachers at a District 201 meeting Wednesday, during which board members were implored to reconsider the punishments.
"You are really courageous. I'm proud of what you did," Kaitlin McIntyre, a member of an anti-war group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told students at the meeting. "The incident has gained international attention, and the world is behind you."
The school board chose to postpone a decision on the expulsions, drawing boos from the crowd.
"We need an answer tonight," said Rita Maniotis, president of the Parent Teacher Organization. "These kids need to go back to school."
District spokesman Dan Proft said that if board members decide to "move forward" on deciding the expulsions, they likely will call a special meeting next week. The next scheduled meeting is Dec. 5. Although the suspensions began Nov. 2, Proft said suspensions not yet served could be handled "in-house," extended or dropped.
Parents and students say that penalties were too harsh -- and unfairly dispensed -- for some of those involved in the protest. More than a dozen parents at the meeting in the Morton East auditorium told the board that students who play varsity athletics or have a high grade point average were given less stringent penalties.
Maniotis said her daughter Barbara, a junior at the high school, participated in the protest but was given a 5-day suspension and does not face expulsion because she is an honor student with a 4.5 GPA. Other students received 10-day suspensions with the possibility of expulsion.
"She did the same thing they did," Maniotis said. "This entire incident is outrageous. The school missed out on a wonderful teachable moment. Instead, they cracked down on them right away and turned it into a punitive situation."
Parents have said they want their children reinstated and the penalties removed from their records.
Some parents got emotional, telling board members how proud they are of their children for taking a stand and protesting. "I love you so much," said one mother, in tears, to her daughter.
District 201 Supt. Ben Nowakowski started reading a statement, which drew boos. Board President Jeffry Pesek told the audience not to be disrespectful to Nowakowski and said the meeting would be held up if they continued to yell.
Nowakowski said the disciplinary actions were taken because the students disrupted the educational process.
"The cafeteria was required to be shut down, and students were held in their classrooms, causing a major disturbance to the school day," he read. "Protesting in the cafeteria rather than outside the school created an environment in the cafeteria which could have caused harm to many people. It is the responsibility of the district to correct inappropriate behavior ... to preserve a peaceful and educational environment. The students are subject to the disciplinary process based on their individual roles."
Pesek said in a statement that the board will wait to make comments on the issue until an investigation is completed. "The primary goal of this board of education shall remain with the safety of the students and the offering of an appropriate and quality high school education," he said.
Morton West High School teacher Gale Holmlund told board members that her classroom and others at the school were not disrupted by the protest.
"Yes, they should have consequences," she said. "They did cut class. Maybe they should get a detention, a parent call or a five-day or 10-day suspension, but to give them an expulsion is not fair."
Some students said officials had told them that if they moved the protest from the cafeteria to another area, which they did, they would face only Saturday detention. Nowakowski said that school officials did tell students they would be spared disciplinary action if they moved but that some students locked arms and refused to move.
"We weren't violent in any way," said Jonathon Acevedo, a student who faces expulsion. "We were holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya' and the song 'Give Peace a Chance.'"
Acevedo's aunt Gladys Hansen-Guerra said her nephew, a musician, is being singled out because he's an average student and a Latino. "The administration is giving harder punishments to students who won't tell them who organized the protest," Hansen-Guerra said. "It was a group effort. They are trying to offer leniency to those who point out the organizers. This isn't a fascist state. [School officials] aren't the CIA. These are 16-year-old kids."
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, an anti-war group from Northeastern Illinois University and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War attended the meeting. They praised the students for their actions and said they are protected by their 1st Amendment rights.
Disabled Gulf War veteran Cesar Ruvalcaba, dressed in his military uniform, chose to lash out at military recruiters allowed to roam the halls of the school.
"Shame on the administrators who think receiving military money from recruiters is more important than the education of their students," he told the board. "I am 100 percent disabled, and I learned the hard way that education, not carrying a machine gun, is the key to success. It's those people who are pro-war who would never drop everything and go fight for the red, white and blue. These kids should receive extra credit for speaking up, not expulsion."
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