Student leaders at Lincoln and Benson high schools have joined the calls for a full accounting of Portland Public Schools' decision to lock Benson students in their school last week while Lincoln students protested outside.
"District officials who ordered and supported the lockout must be held accountable for this rash and unnecessary action," reads the statement issued late Sunday by student leaders—Benson Associated Student Body president Teresa Tran and secretary Lisa Lau, as well as Lincoln student and bond advocate Michael Ioffe and Lincoln co-Presidents Marin Christensen and Riley Wilson.
"We believe PPS violated the civil liberties of Benson students."
Last week, Lincoln students walked out of school over the school board's decision to postpone a vote on the $750 million bond that under current plans would revamp both schools.
By the time the Lincoln students' protest arrived at Benson, Interim Superintendent Bob McKean had ordered a lockdown of Benson. When Lincoln students arrived across town, Benson students were barred from leaving their school to join the protest.
The Benson parents and the activist group Don't Shoot Portland criticized the disparity in treatment last week, noting the difference in racial makeup of the schools.
According to last year's enrollment data, nearly three-quarters of Lincoln's students are white; 3 percent are African American; and 7 percent are Hispanic. At Benson, one out of five students is African American; one out of four is Hispanic; and one out of three are white.
On Friday, district spokeswoman Courtney Westling said McKean ordered the lockout, as the Oregonian first reported. The students don't name him.
To date, the district has insisted that students at Benson were allowed to leave. Parents and a student told WW otherwise. And signs posted on Benson at the time clearly indicate students were directed to stay in place.
The students' statement adds further details, noting the PPS policy during a lockout necessarily means kids have to stay in a building: "PPS lockout procedure states that students must 'return and remain inside the school building,'" the students' statement notes.
"The lockout effectively silenced the voices of Benson students during the main portion of the protest," the statement reads.
They also add details to the sequence of events: "Word eventually spread through the Benson student body that they were free to leave, yet this occurred thirty to forty-five minutes after the lockout was started, at which point Benson students flooded out of the building to join the protest."
The students' request:
We formally request that Portland Public Schools provide a full disclosure and submittal to the Benson and Lincoln ASB leadership of all communications related to this issue internally at PPS, its board members and/or staff, PPS Campus Security, Portland Police, and other individuals related to this incident. We request that this information is provided as soon as possible. We also request that the district schedule a public meeting on this issue, with the goal of evaluating district procedure in this situation and subsequently creating new Board policy regarding student protest rights.
On Wednesday, September 7 at 9 am, over a thousand Lincoln students walked out of school. This was in protest of the School Board’s September 6 decision to not schedule a Thursday morning meeting to hear more public comment regarding the timing of the proposed school bond. The proposed school bond — originally scheduled for the November 2016 ballot — was moved to the May 2017 ballot on July 25. This decision was made on the basis of several private conversations and was announced to the Board with a minimal board comment period and no public vote, unprecedented for an issue of this magnitude. The bond would rebuild Madison, Benson, Lincoln, and Kellogg, while providing much-needed funds towards remediating various safety issues district-wide, especially lead, asbestos, and radon. The walkout — which was entirely student-run and which was organized and directed without any adult input — started at Lincoln, made its way to Pioneer Square and City Hall, and finished at Benson High School, where protesters were met with a police line and a lockout inside the building.
The protest was organized in twelve hours, in the aftermath of the School Board’s decision on Tuesday night, September. Had the School Board agreed to schedule a meeting for Thursday morning at any point before the protest started on 9 am Wednesday, the walkout would have been immediately cancelled.
The protest was peaceful and respectful. Six Lincoln teachers and one school resource officer were approved to leave the building and were present throughout the protest to ensure student safety. Lincoln students walked to Benson in a show of support and solidarity with Benson students — that was the sole intent of the march to Benson. Lincoln students never intended to enter Benson’s building. The protest’s student leaders communicated this to security personnel present at Benson. Upon arriving at Benson, all protesters were directed to stay out of the building, remain on the sidewalk and front lawn, and protest peacefully there, which they did.
All school board members were made aware of the walkout through an email from protest organizers on the evening of September 6. There was also ample press coverage of the promise to walkout if the board refused to hold a community meeting. Throughout, Benson and Madison students were invited to walk-out along with Lincoln. Although communication between Lincoln, Benson, and Madison students before the protest was difficult — since no prior connection between student leadership at the schools existed — the Benson students that desired to walkout once protesters arrived at Benson should have been allowed to freely do so.
As a result, initiating a lockout was a significant overreaction and an unnecessary measure by PPS leadership. The lockout effectively silenced the voices of Benson students during the main portion of the protest. Signs on the front doors at Benson read “LOCKOUT: NO ONE IN OR OUT,” and PPS lockout procedure states that students must “return and remain inside the school building.” Word eventually spread through the Benson student body that they were free to leave, yet this occurred thirty to forty-five minutes after the lockout was started, at which point Benson students flooded out of the building to join the protest. Initiating the lockout severely limited Benson students’ ability to “within state and Federal law, District policy, and school guidelines, have freedom of expression and assembly under the First Amendment,” as noted in the ‘Freedom of Expression and Assembly’ section of the ‘Student Responsibilities Rights and Discipline’ handbook distributed to all PPS students. As far as we can tell — and as was our intent — the protest fell within all of those laws, policies, and guidelines.
There was no district directive to effectively communicate the situation and the issue with students before the protest, during, the protest, or after the protest. This could have been easily accomplished through a district-wide email, through the District’s social media accounts, and through PA announcements at all high schools. This lack of communication on a district level is unacceptable, and district officials who ordered and supported the lockout must be held accountable for this rash and unnecessary action.
Although we understand the need for safety, we believe that the safety of all PPS students was never threatened during the peaceful protest and that a lockout was completely uncalled for. School resource officers were present on the Benson campus to ensure the safety of all students, but ordering officers to barricade the entrance — as is standard lockout procedure — limits free speech rights without increasing student safety.
We believe PPS violated the civil liberties of Benson students. We formally request that Portland Public Schools provide a full disclosure and submittal to the Benson and Lincoln ASB leadership of all communications related to this issue internally at PPS, its board members and/or staff, PPS Campus Security, Portland Police, and other individuals related to this incident. We request that this information is provided as soon as possible. We also request that the district schedule a public meeting on this issue, with the goal of evaluating district procedure in this situation and subsequently creating new Board policy regarding student protest rights.
Lastly, we request that Portland Public Schools issue a statement promising that student free speech rights will not be violated in this manner in the future. We will continue to advocate and fight for equality, free speech, and district transparency for the benefit of all students.