After a Walkout, Consequences

By CHRIS BURRELL

They demonstrated against war and demanded peace, then walked out the doors of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School to underscore their point.

In the eight days that followed, the 190 students who took part in the high school's first ever walkout have now undergone an unusual lesson in crime and punishment.

Imagine being called into a Saturday morning detention and being told that you weren't really being punished, but honored, for protesting war in Iraq. And that sitting in front of you at the library table was a sheaf of papers meant to teach you how to do a better job at practicing civil disobedience.

All told, 118 students showed up for the one-hour Saturday session. Along with another 60 or so who turned out for a similar meeting Wednesday night, these students avoided being slapped with a two-day suspension for their part in the walkout. At least two students have opted to take the suspension. One of them is challenging the punishment and has already sought support from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The fallout comes in the wake of a school-sanctioned peace rally in the Performing Arts Center attended by roughly 600 students that turned into a spontaneous walkout.

For high school principal Peg Regan, offering the mini-course in civil disobedience as an alternative wasn't just a compromise but a reflection of her own ambivalence.

What that means is that Mrs. Regan applauded the students who spoke up and walked out, but still felt compelled to take action when those students broke the rules.

As an administrator, she told the Gazette this week, "For the first time since I've been here, kids are speaking up. It's a fine line to walk. You want to honor it and not squelch it. The first couple years, it was eerily quiet."

So Saturday morning, Mrs. Regan planted herself by the podium in the library, gazed out over the 118 students and told them, "This is not meant to be punitive. Nobody here is in trouble. . . . Every person in this room is in the company of people who have changed governments. You are not here to be hammered or disgraced, but to be honored.

"A good high school," she added, "is not always complacent."

A half dozen teachers were also on hand and let these students know they were proud of them for walking out.

"You know I like to rouse the rabble," said English teacher Elizabeth Sylvia. "I like to support you guys for participating in the walkout. It's important to understand you can only plumb the strengths of your beliefs when they are tested by others."

Other teachers shared their own experiences from the era of the Vietnam War, but tried to urge students to temper their convictions with a dose of reason.

Recalling his days at Cornell University when students shut down the campus, teacher Keith Dodge told students, "I'm proud of you for the things you've done, but you have to realize there are consequences."

Another teacher, Elaine Weintraub, said bluntly, "Every government needs to have concerned citizens who find out what's going on, who never blindly obey anything. That's not unpatriotic, it's your duty and I commend you all for it."

Some of these comments were met with applause, but Mrs. Regan had promised a discourse, not a lecture. And some students were prepared to spar.

Adam Petkus showed up sporting a large yellow picket sign around his neck that declared: "Suppression in any form is unjust." He challenged Mrs. Regan's contention that the morning session was anything other than punitive. "You said if we didn't come, we'd be suspended," he said.

Mrs. Regan responded, admitting that the situation was something of a "paradox," then adding that she also respected the students who chose not to come to the Saturday school. She had already recounted Thoreau's civil disobedience - refusing to pay taxes in protest against the war in Mexico - and how he was angry when his friends bailed him out of jail after just one night.

It was clear that some students were growing a little confused about their actions and the implications. One student raised his hand to say that he felt like if he had chosen to be suspended, his situation would have been more honorable.

Nearly all the students who took part in the walkout have taken the same path. But not all students agreed that the walkout was the best way to protest war in Iraq.

Last Friday night at the weekly poetry reading at Mocha Mott's in Oak Bluffs, Julia Fleishman was arguing, in a discussion with some of her peers, that the decision to leave the school building was directed more against the school than the war.

Alison Wilson, a senior who participated in the walkout, told Mrs. Regan Saturday morning, "I think the best thing you could have done is walk out with us."

Liz Schweitzer, a junior from Edgartown and one of the handful of students to accept a suspension, took aim not only at Mrs. Regan but also at many of her peers. "I chose suspension on purpose, but the fact that they are suspending anyone is illegal," said Miss Schweitzer.

She cited a 1989 federal law that guarantees the civil rights of children. "We can't be punished for protesting regardless of whether or not it's during [school] hours," she added.

As for choosing suspension, Ms. Schweitzer said, "Very few others have gone this route because there's this fear looming that they won't get into college. But it was the right thing for me to do. It goes on my record, but colleges will know that I exercised my right to say what I feel."

The ripples from the walkout are still being felt. Senior Mac Schilcher is fighting one of the two suspensions he was handed. He told the Gazette yesterday he was taking the suspension for not attending the Saturday session. But he's appealing the second two-day suspension meted out by Mrs. Regan on grounds that he encouraged other students to follow suit and skip the Saturday lesson in civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, the protests from last week helped spark plans for an honor society debate on the Iraq situation scheduled to take place this morning. Life at the Island high school, one week after the protests, appears to be neither quiet nor complacent.