Recent protests in the District have drawn crowds from around the country and captured the attention of some local students.
Three Yorktown high-schoolers decided to bring the anti-war movement to the local level last week. Calling themselves Yorktown Students against the War, Marissa Levendis, Taylor Branson and Maya Mackrandilal led about 140 students in a scheduled walkout Wednesday, March 5.
Students left class at 2:30 p.m. and walked to a nearby park, where organizers and others spoke on the importance of getting involved in politics. The timing was planned so students would miss just over 20 minutes of class, thus violating the school’s attendance policy, Levendis said.
Any student who misses more than 20 minutes of a particular class without a valid excuse, such as a medical problem, receives an unexcused absence. Three such absences affect a student’s grade in that course.
The policy will be enforced for the student protesters, school superintendent Robert Smith said.
STUDENT ORGANIZERS said they were not worried about punishment. “Mainly it was important for me to show students that they can get involved,” Branson said.
Levendis and Mackrandilal, both seniors, and Branson, a sophomore, had been planning the event for several months, but two previous attempts were scrapped after snowstorms led to school cancellation.
During the planning process, the trio circulated a petition to oppose military action in Iraq and any government official who supports such action. They collected over 500 signatures.
That’s still a minority – about 1,600 students attend Yorktown. But organizers said they were pleased with the turnout, both at the walkout and on the petition.
“There was a definite positive reaction,” said Levendis, “We were pleased with the number.”
Mackrandilal said she entered the day with no expectations about how many students would choose to walk out. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. “We got people talking … and that was the whole point,” she said.
Branson echoed her sentiments: “Even if 20 people came to the walkout, it would have been a success in my mind because it did get a lot of students thinking.”
Even before the walkout, students worked to spark dialogue on the possibility of war. Yorktown Students against the War, with permission from school administrators, turned lunch periods into opportunities for debate by setting up an information table in the cafeteria.
Branson said although he is a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, he was glad to see thoughtful arguments from a variety of viewpoints. “We tried to kind of present both of the sides equally,” he said. “It was amazing how many students came over.”
ON THE DAY of the protest, the three organizers reserved an empty lecture room near the cafeteria for a series of student forums on the war. Each of the three lunch-time forums drew close to 100 students.
Branson said the efforts filled a void in today’s educational system. “I really don’t think there’s enough classroom discussion on current events,” he said. But Levendis said debates on the possibility of war have been a topic of increasing interest in history and government classes. Some teachers even brought their classes to the lunch-time forums Wednesday.
Student organizers said they felt they had support from many teachers and administrators. “The administration was very good about letting us do this,” said Levendis.
“The administration, they definitely were not in any way hindering what we were doing,” said Mackrandilal. Branson said administrators didn’t try to stop the walkout.
Actually, he said, they supported the action but weren’t able to voice that support formally. “They were in support of this thing without actually being in support,” he said.
Student organizers reported that several Yorktown teachers even participated in the walkout, leaving school and accompanying the protestors. Students declined to provide the names of those teachers, out of fear that the teachers could be punished for leaving school grounds.
Some say faculty and staff acted irresponsibly when teachers left work and administrators failed to block the student walkout.
Local resident and civic advocate Robert Molleur addressed the School Board at its meeting the day after the protest. “Explicit in the act of civil disobedience is the willingness to suffer the consequences of your actions,” he said. “When you break a law or rule, you do so knowing your cause is worth the punishment.”
Smith agreed and said the existing attendance policy would apply.
But that’s not enough, Molleur said. “Would a rally to pray for our troops be given equal treatment and allowed on school property during class time also?” he added.