School Climate & Safety Opinion

Chicago Students Teach Through Their Walkout for School Safety

By Anthony Cody — March 12, 2013 10 min read
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Last week I posteda report from some Chicago High School students, which described their concerns about safety at their school. Today I am sharing a follow-up, which explains how their attempts to have these issues address were received by their administration.

Guest post by Yoseling Cueto and Leslie Leon.

Lately, an issue that’s come between me and my education is the lack of safety at the school. This makes me feel uncomfortable and often makes me think twice about attending school or not. Since I started at Gage Park, this school has had a reputation of being “one of the worse schools” but before I never saw where these comments were coming from. Sadly, this year, I see it coming true. Before students were scared to walk out of school and have something happen to them but now we are frightened to go to school and have something happen to us inside the school too. A lot of this is rooted in the lack empathy for our daily experience. No one really takes into consideration the student point-of-view. It’s why people don’t understand why students behave the way they behave and why the biggest challenges we face never get addressed; our voices are often entirely ignored! I hope through this work, we can change that. Can you hear us?

On March 7th, the Thursday after we chose to refuse to take the NAEP exam, over 100 students signed ourselves out of classes to attend the Local School Council (LSC) Meeting that was being held at 9AM. LSCs are a unique part of Chicago education where parents, community members, teachers and students are elected by their peers to make democratic decisions about our schools, including budget and hiring and firing of principals. They stand in sharp contrast to another part of our system--mayoral control--in which the School board is selected entirely by the mayor, not elected. LSCs usually meet during the evening when students, teachers and working parents can attend the meetings. However, in our school, they meet at 9am on a school day so it is difficult for students to attend.

On this particular day, we all gathered together to speak up and let our voices be heard by the LSC. We wanted as students to get more involved with what is happening around our school. Every day there are some students who cut classes, but on this day we walked out of class for only a good reason: we saw the LSC meeting as an opportunity to express our ideas on how to improve our own educations. The evening before, we worked late to create posters and signs to represent our questions and feelings on how to improve the school. As we headed to the small room where LSC meetings are held, we carried our student-made posters and signs with our concerns on them. They were written in both English and Spanish to accommodate parents who only either English or Spanish. Some signs read, “Right to assemble--the 1st Amendment"; “Search for drugs not food"; “When can I go pee?"; “Tinker vs. Des Moines” while others specifically addressed the safety issues at the school. The posters dealt with all of the programs and favorite teachers who have been cut over the last year, key programs that we wanted support for and our own beliefs about education.

Once we got to the room, we found even more students but the LSC had not arrived yet. We immediately started hanging posters, only to find out that the meeting had been moved, and was being held in the auditorium instead. So we took our posters down and rushed to the auditorium. When we arrived, we all went in quietly and sat in the front middle section of the auditorium seating. When some of the LSC people saw us they started discussing amongst themselves, and we figured they were probably wondering why we were there rather than in class. Again, we hung our posters and waited for the meeting to begin. We noticed that our presence seemed to bother some members of the LSC. At that point, a number of security guards arrived and the assistant principal approached us.

He asked us, “What are you doing here?”
One of us answered, “We are here for the LSC Meeting.”
He asked, “Who are your teachers?”
We replied, “We are not mentioning teacher’s names.”
He continued to interrogate us, asking if we had permission to be out of class and when we replied affirmatively, he said that we had to leave because since this was not a fieldtrip, so we were basically cutting class. We all refused to leave and sat in the auditorium. He left and after 5-10 minutes, he returned telling us that we could stay if and only if we signed in. We all signed in and stayed for the meeting. As each LSC member arrived for the meeting, they took their place in the table at the staged and looked at the large crowd of students. Several asked us what we wanted so we directed them to our posters.

Rather than start the LSC meeting, the principal started reading our posters and responding to them, but only mentioning a few of our many concerns. She provided few exact answers to the most important questions. She addressed why they canceled the Homecoming dance for the first time in 75 years explaining that the Police suggested that an evening dance might be risky and it was for our “safety.” She explained that we do not have a Wrestling team and she said because “they couldn’t find a coach.” Once we got to the security questions about our safety and the recent sexual assaults, she never answered our direct questions. Jadine Chou, the head of security for Chicago Public Schools stepped in instead and answered some of the questions, but couldn’t address our school issues directly.

Later, we asked the principal directly, why we hadn’t been informed about the sexual assaults happening inside our school and why we had to found out through the media. Why hadn’t the parents been informed about these incidents through a letter until well after the event? We asked why letters were sent home several days after everything occurred and did not include any of the specific details, and the principal said the letters had to be passed through some process before they were send out. That was unsatisfying as in similar situations in the past under a different administration, parents, students and teachers were told much more quickly.

After that, she did not address any more of our questions. Ms. Chou continued to try her best. They basically just avoided any questions that Ms. Chou could not answer. I guess they thought we wouldn’t notice but we continued to press them to answer. They finally grew impatient and wanted to start the LSC meeting so they told us to leave. We refused saying that we were here for the meeting too. They tried persuading us to leave by telling us that we would not find anything said in the meeting interesting and that it would bore us. We were concerned that they would tell the parents and community members one thing and us another, so we told them that we still wanted to stay no matter what. That they told us that students could stay in the auditorium but the LSC was going to move to a smaller classroom which could not accommodate students. A student got angry and stood up and said “Why can’t we be part of the meeting?” and many more students rose and supported him. They still wanted to leave and leave us behind. The principal then said, “After the meeting I will return to answer more student questions.” We continued to object to being excluded from the public LSC meeting.

At this point, Liz Kirby, Network chief over the high schools in the area, stood up for us and requested us to stay at the meeting. Hearing their boss speak, the administration had no choice but to let us attend the meeting. We were respectful throughout the meeting, but noticed that the “translator” was not translating everything to the Spanish speaking parents--only what she wanted to tell them. We requested to have a student translate. At first, they were reluctant, but as we continued to push them, they finally agreed. One of the students, Mariel Villanueva was brave to stand up and translate.

The meeting was going well until the end when Ms. Hood, Vice President of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association was speaking and the LSC teacher representative interrupted her when Ms. Hood was explaining to students the importance of knowing our rights and the exact details of the Student Code of Conduct (the document that tells us the rules of the school and can be used to defend us from unjust suspensions or arrests). The Teacher representative and the administration declared the meeting over and told Ms. Hood she could no longer speak. When we spoke out to allow Ms. Hood to speak, they said that we needed to show respect for the LSC process. A student named Jose Villanueva said, “That’s how you want to talk about respect when you right here disrespected Ms. Hood’s right to give her speech?” Again, no one answered him.

As the meeting ended, we looked for the principal but noticed that she was quietly leaving through the back door, even though she had said she would stay and speak with us after the meeting. When we pointed this out, Ms. Kirby called her and ordered her to come back. She returned, but still did not answer our questions completely and acted surprised with many of the questions. It grew increasingly frustrating, but we endured because we had many other people supporting us.

Throughout all of this, there were many supportive members of the community, Ronald Jackson was from the Tilden High School Local School Council where our Principal had been before until it got turnaround around for low performance. He was supportive and understood where we were coming from. He testified that when our principal was at Tilden, a similar sexual assault had occurred in the girls’ bathroom and the LSC had asked similar questions about the lack of a safety in the school. He stood with us and even gave us information about a state taskforce meeting where we could be heard by state legislators.

This meeting of the Chicago Educational Facilities Taskforce was held at Humboldt Park Library on the morning of March 9 at 10am. We, along with two other Gage Park students--Nancy Avila and Celena Rodriguez--attended. Leslie testified on the students’ behalf.

We all stood together as Leslie said afterwards “My friends stood along my sides to show unity.” Everyone including: State Representative Cynthia Soto, Valencia Rias-Winstead and many more supported us. It felt amazing having people genuinely listen. After the meeting, some of the people approached us and encouraged us to keep speaking out. Their words of encouragement motivated us more and reminded us why we were doing this.

We are convinced that through our involvement we are advancing our idea of making the Gage Park High School a safer environment. We hold hope that we can teach the Administration how to play their own part in a better Gage Park High School.

We love that so many people have supported us. Some of family members have questioned what we were doing--not because they were against our principles, but because they were scared for our safety. Despite their concerns, we must go through with this because it is what we believe is right. We are passionate about what we are doing and we are not planning to stop until we have reached our goal of creating a safer learning environment; until we have created the school we all deserve. We must make people understand that test scores should never come before students’ safety.

We want to make our school’s safety the administration’s priority, but that’s not enough. In order to make a better future for the students who come after us, we must make voices be a permanent part of decision-making at the school and not just have administration take action upon what we request. To accomplish this, we need to teach administration to communicate more effectively with students so we can make our own decisions about our safety and our learning. They must inform students when things happen and honestly inform us which tests are voluntary tests so students can choose what will help our education and not take the tests blindly.

Yes, we are seniors and even though it is natural for some seniors to have the mentality “We are seniors, we are out this year, who cares what happens?” We maintain the mentality of saying “Yes, we are seniors and because we are seniors we are the leaders of our school and must take the leadership role!” If we do not speak up and stand for ourselves, no one else will. In addition, we hope that through this fight, we inspire the juniors, sophomores and freshman so that in the future if they see injustice, they have to courage to stand up. We must not be afraid to fight as through that fight, we may win the change we all need in ourselves, in our schools and in the world we share.

What do you think of the lessons these students are giving us?

Student sign photos by Julio Contreras, used with permission.
Press conference photo by Bonita Robinson, used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.