Student Protest Against Iraq War Triggers Suspensions in Clash with Administration

By JULIA WELLS

A peaceful student protest against war in Iraq bubbled into a spontaneous walkout at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School this week that left two students suspended, another 80 facing possible suspension, and a nearly equal number of parents who came of age in the 1960s shaking their heads.

The two students who were suspended said yesterday morning they believe their civil rights were violated and that they were singled out unfairly.

"It just kind of upsets me. Everyone was sharing their own opinion and I felt it was okay for me to share my opinion. I think it's taking away my freedom of speech," said Rachel Lucier, a sophomore and resident of Edgartown.

"I got suspended today for speaking my mind," said Mac Schilcher, a senior and resident of Vineyard Haven.

On Thursday morning, high school principal Peg Regan offered a choice to the 80-plus students who walked out on Wednesday: Attend an hour-long educational session on civil disobedience on Saturday morning or be suspended for two days.

Mr. Schilcher, who participated in the walkout, openly urged the group to choose suspension over what is known among students as Saturday school.

Ms. Lucier, who is president of her class, is credited with sparking the walkout that followed the school-sanctioned peace rally.

For their words, both Ms. Lucier and Mr. Schilcher were handed two-day suspensions yesterday in addition to the punishment being offered to the rest of the students who walked out.

"One student [Ms. Lucier] I believe jeopardized the safety of the school by inviting the other students to walk out, and the other student [Mr. Schilcher] I believe jeopardized the education of his peers by inviting students to not attend the Saturday session," said Mrs. Regan, who did not name the students.

Mrs. Regan had strong words of praise for the student rally, but she said the walkout left her with no choice but to take disciplinary action.

Both Ms. Lucier and Mr. Schilcher said they harbored no illusions about the consequences of the walkout, but both expressed surprise at ending up on the receiving end of extra punishment.

Other students agreed.

"They are getting singled out - I am pretty certain about that," said Alison Wilson of Oak Bluffs, a senior who participated in the walkout.

"If anyone should get suspended for being a ringleader it should be all of us - because Rachel had that personal strength to say what she was going to do and for Mac to get suspended because he expressed his opinion - well, that's just wrong," she added.

Part of a worldwide war protest called Books not Bombs, the student rally at the high school began on Wednesday morning.

Ty Sinnett, a Chilmark resident and sophomore at the high school, was the original organizer. Ms. Sinnett said she learned about the protest after her mother had showed her an article about it in The New York Times. "I had talked to some of my friends and a lot of kids thought it was a good idea - it caught on really fast," she said. Ms. Sinnett spoke to top school administrators on Wednesday morning to let them know that a walkout was probably going to happen. After some discussion, she said Mrs. Regan told her she would provide space in the Performing Arts Center at noontime for any students who wanted to attend.

An announcement went out over the public address system and shortly after noon, some 600 students filed into the Performing Arts Center. There are 800 students in the high school.

An open mike was offered, and the peace rally, planned as a 20-minute affair, went on for more than an hour.

Drew de Geofroy, a high school senior who is co-editor of the student newspaper High School View, said the speakers covered a wide range of viewpoints.

"It was pretty civilized for a protest - when kids voiced their opinions the whole place would erupt in applause, but it was pretty orderly," he said. Mr. de Geofroy will write about the event next week.

He said Mr. Schilcher stood out as a speaker. "He had the most facts of anyone and he really presented them well. He was definitely anti-war, but he was also really educating kids about the facts," Mr. de Geofroy said.

Toward the end or the rally Mr. de Geofroy said Ms. Lucier took the stage and announced that she would walk out. About 80 students followed. Mr. de Geofroy described the walkout as spirited.

"There was a lot of energy, although I did think that some people took it a little too far - one kid got on the roof of somebody's car and they were driving around," he said. "A lot of the people who were driving by got into it and you would see an old lady 70 years old slamming on her horn and going, ‘Yeah!' " Mr. de Geofroy said he does not expect to face punishment for being present at the walkout since he was covering it as a journalist.

As events unfolded yesterday, Mr. de Geofroy said the story got more complicated.

"This is probably the biggest story that has ever happened to us. I am looking at past issues of our paper now and we have stories about the school play, teachers retiring, the dress code - there has never been an open student rebellion about something that they feel strongly about, at least not in my time here," he said.

Mrs. Regan said the Saturday school session will include discussion workshops on some of the great names in history associated with civil disobedience: Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau.

But some student leaders said they have already had their lesson.

"I personally don't think it's very fair that Rachel and Mac took the fall for this - everyone who went outside was very well aware of the consequences," said Ms. Sinnett, who did not participate in the walkout. "I think a lot of kids think the penalties are unfair. I think they believe we are taught in school to stand up for what we believe in and we're told that this is what America is all about and here we are standing up for what we believe in. Mac was the best speaker - he really had his facts straight and he inspired other people to learn and now he's being penalized for it, for strongly believing in something," she added.

"I knew that walking out had consequences and I knew I was not getting off scot-free, but this is garbage," said Mr. Schilcher, who said he will appeal the extra suspension.

"I thought this was the best, most informative thing the school has ever allowed us to do - it created a forum for a lot of kids to have their ears opened, and I don't want the aftermath of that to hinder having another one of these," he said.

Ms. Lucier said she has not decided yet whether to attend Saturday school or take the suspension.

Ms. Wilson said she, too, has not decided which punishment to choose.

"In my view this walkout was not a protest to our school and community but instead it was to show our school and community how strongly the students feel about the war," she said.

"It was a national walkout, and lots of other high schools closed for the day or had a half day to allow it to happen," said Ms. Lucier, concluding:

"I just think that the whole thing went wrong."