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Students demand free speech

Students Brianna Hardcastle, Tauni Keefer, Alena Stapel and parent Christina Freeburn peacefully protest along Whidbey Avenue.    - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Students Brianna Hardcastle, Tauni Keefer, Alena Stapel and parent Christina Freeburn peacefully protest along Whidbey Avenue.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

While today’s student-age youth continue the clash for civil rights, originally spirited in the 1960s, the nature of protest now has a high-tech buzz.

Using modern technology — mostly the popular MySpace Web site and text messaging — students at Oak Harbor High School are pulling off major demonstrations with surprising dexterity.

But the method of effectively getting the group’s message heard is still under debate, just as it has been for decades: showy rebellion or peaceful protest?

The question arose after five student protesters were arrested at Oak Harbor High School Friday for allegedly disrupting school activities.

They felt a mutual friend was unjustly expelled for one year due to the suspicion of a marijuana crime, sophomore Jesse Durbin, a protester, said.

“We felt if we were silent with this, no one would pay attention to us,” junior Justin Chambers said. “You need to be 40-years-old and carrying a suitcase for people to actually listen to you.”

That same day, Nov. 7, fifty other students held a peaceful, silent protest by wearing shirts and other clothing with messages asking to bring the expelled student back.

Mike Zuercher, father of silent protesters Rachel and Billy Hardin, said the arrests that morning led administrators to shut down all forms of school protest.

“My kids, and five other students, were called into the office and told to take their shirts off or face suspension or expulsion,” Zuercher said. “Rachel refused and they sent her home.”

Many parents are supporting their children’s’ demands for free speech and feel the complaints are legitimate, Zuercher said. Zuercher drafted a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union pleading the students’ case and evidencing rules in the Student Handbook. He said the alleged offense required a lesser penalty. In any case, he said he is not supporting drugs, but civil rights.

“I see the protests as an educational opportunity, rather than a disruption. The school should’ve given them a forum,” Zuercher said.

Principal Dwight Lundstrom contends that discipline is by law a confidential matter and it doesn’t concern any third-parties.

He said some students, as a show of solidarity, are carrying around sheets with ACLU information.

“I have no problem with them disagreeing, but they can’t be disruptive,” Lundstrom said.

Peaceful protesters began mobilizing through MySpace, creating a group called “Students for Civil Rights Union” to exercise their right to free speech. Sixty-four students signed on.

The five arrested students approached the News-Times Monday and said they are in no way related to the silent protests.

They began spearheading their protest Thursday night, and without formal organization, the protest became chaotic the next day.

Sophomore Jesse Durbin said they began by sitting silently at a cafeteria lunch table in Parker Hall, which has the most morning traffic.

When the vice principal asked them to head to class, the students continued the protest. Parent Marla McIver said she received a call at 7:50 a.m. that her two boys, Jesse and Trevor Durbin, had been suspended.

After briefly storming to the school district office, the students were directed back to the principal’s office. Durbin said they tried to show Lundstrom evidence that their friend did not deserve his punishment and alleged that the principal would not listen.

“When this happened, we were enraged and went back to Parker Hall,” Durbin said.

According to Lundstrom, the students were belligerent and disrupting classes. Jesse Durbin admitted to “smacking the dean’s hand away from his face.”

“The principal gave us two options, we could talk with him in his office one at a time, or we would be arrested. We wanted to go to the office as a group, so we told him to arrest us,” Jesse Durbin said.

The students were arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor. Durbin claimed he was charged with fourth-degree assault and given a longer suspension from school.

“I support my kids,” McIver said. “They stood up for someone who was wrongly accused.”

The friends said they will use their week-long suspension to rally more students to their cause. They want to do another sit-in at Parker Hall, Chambers said. According to the OHHS Student Handbook, sit-ins are restricted and fall under “substantial disruptions.”

“It was worth the risk and worth getting arrested,” Chambers said.

Tuesday, when school was closed for Veterans Day, the silent protesters held a demonstration along Whidbey Avenue with the belief that their First Amendment rights were violated. Junior Brianna Hardcastle said the day of the protest, their leaflets and flyers were taken away.

“Several students were suspended for signing a petition for the student, some for three days,” junior Tauni Keefer said.

Zuercher said parents too, are beginning a civil rights group to support their children’s peaceful protest.

“These are our rights and our school must support us,” Hardcastle said.

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