Saturday, November 14, 2009

McNary Protest, Pt. 1

The next two stories were part of a package of four stories that won the ONPA contest for best educational coverage. Up to this point at the paper, I had probably spent as much time at McNary as I had all other aspects of my job combined. When the kids made me the first stop on their list after getting out of school it felt like all hours man hours had been validated.

Published Jan. 28, 2005, in the Keizertimes

A group of McNary High School students staged a sit-in last Friday to protest stalled teacher talks, and got a lesson on the price of public dissent for their efforts.

About 150 students gathered in the school commons in support of their teachers who have been working without a contract since June 2003. Their participation brought a range of consequences - from detention to suspension. At least one student was kept from participating in the final weekend of a school play.

The punishments drew protests from some parents, but school officials defended the actions as a justifiable response to students skipping class.

A reporter from the Keizertimes was asked to leave the building before the protest began, and others from the media were barred from entering while the demonstration took place.

McNary Principal Ken Parshall said that the district can deny access to the school when it is dealing with large groups of students such as assemblies.

"It diverts teacher attention away from students," said Parshall.

According to junior Kyle Stanek, anticipation of the protest drew a throng of students - much larger than normal - to the commons area in the lobby of the building Friday morning, between the students' first and second periods.

"It was as if they wanted to see what was going to happen," said Stanek.

The sit-in also drew administrators, including school district officials. When they told students they were going to begin taking names, much of the crowd dissipated, Stanek said.

Sophomore Amanda Lantis said that she was in the second-floor hallway when the thunder of footsteps arose from the stairwell.

"We knew something had happened because we almost got knocked over," said Lantis.

About 150 students remained in the commons for the 90-minute protest.

"As most of the others left, the ones that planned to stay just sat down in the commons," said Stephanie Brundidge.

During the time of the protest, students sat at tables and talked and read aloud an open letter from the sit-in organizers. Students also read excerpts from the student handbook.

Josh Egner, one of the protest organizers, said that about half of the students participating were politically motivated, but he conceded that the other half were probably drawn to the idea of skipping class.

"We were trying to have a quiet demonstration, and some students were going out of their way to make us look like hooligans," said Egner.

The students who were there to make a point impressed their peers with how aware they were of the situation.

"It was amazing to see people take it so seriously and take the time to know what they were talking about," said sophomore Emily Cary.

Students were asked not to take photographs or record the event, but some students with small cameras did so anyway without being detected.

"On the whole, students were respectful and the staff handled everything well," said Parshall.

One of the protest organizers, Cameron Haider, said school officials took him to a room away from the protest, where he remained during the event. He was still suspended for four days.

Haider said he helped organize the sit-in after watching his teachers "work to their contract" and discussing the situation at home. Teachers at both McNary and other Keizer schools have staged work-to-contract days in which they enter the school building at 7 a.m. and leave promptly at 3:15 p.m.

Haider's father, Laer, said that he doesn't feel that the consequence was warranted by his son's actions.

"I do believe that he should be punished and that he should accept those consequences, but I think that a four-day suspension is excessive," said Laer Haider.

He also said that a political demonstration is in line with the goals of the district to "demonstrate civic, global and environmental responsibility."

Another student was ousted from the chorus of the school's production of "Les Miserables: School Edition" for the final two shows.

Parshall contended that the punishment did fit the students' actions, although he wouldn't comment on specific cases. He also said that individual teachers have the authority to exclude students from school activities.

"Most of the students will receive detention for their actions, which is the normal penalty for skipping a class," said Parshall.

Cary, whose mother is a Salem-Keizer school teacher, said that if that's what happens to her, she'll gladly pay the price.

"I'll sit in detention with a red shirt on and a smile on my face," said Cary, referring to the color chosen to show solidarity with the teachers' union.

Senior Max Breedlove said that he was happy that the students' voices were heard.

"The point of all this was to make sure people knew we cared about the state of our teachers' contract. We also want to encourage them to attend the next Salem-Keizer School Board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 8," Breedlove said.

The district and teachers' union will begin contract mediation next Tuesday.

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