It's been one week since Benson Polytechnic High School students were locked inside the school while students from Lincoln High protested the school board's decision to delay till May a vote on the $750 million school bond that would revamp Lincoln, Benson and Madison high schools.
But questions remain about the "lockout"—which prevented Lincoln students from entering Benson, and kept Benson students from leaving.
Lincoln and Benson student leaders have called the lockout a violation of Benson students' civil rights. Portland Public Schools initially denied that the lockout kept Benson students inside—but has backed away from that characterization.
WW sat down with Benson Polytechnic High School principal Curtis Wilson in his office to discuss the controversy that's erupted. (PPS spokeswoman Courtney Westling attended the interview.)
WW: When did you know there was going to be a protest outside of your school?
Curtis Wilson: About 10-15 minutes before they got here.
How did you learn?
I got a text message from our SRO [School Resource Officer]. I was in the gym, setting up for lunch. I open the gym up to let our kids play basketball. I opened up the text and it said "800 students heading your way."
When you talked to Assistant Superintendent Antonio Lopez, what did he say?
He said there's a lot of kids heading your way from Lincoln High School. We don't know why they're heading to Benson. I said, Antonio, we're about to go into lunch, so what are we doing? As he's pausing for a second, I have two SRO officers walking into the gym. I had my dean of students. I had like five adults looking at me. I have Antonio on the phone. So I said, What are we going to do with these kids heading toward Benson? What's the plan? And he said, We need to initiate the lockout.
And I said, OK. And then I said, So when we do the lockout, we're going to keep the Lincoln students out, the protesters outside, keep them out, but then our kids will be in the building. And they were like, OK.
So I went and I called my vice principal and said, Put the building into a lockout. And we went into the lockout procedure.
The staff did what they were supposed to do, cover certain doors around the building. We have signs that come with the lockout. Signs were put up. No one in, no one out. I went outside. I can see the trail of kids coming.
You went outside to see what was happening. Did you try talking to the kids?
No, because I didn't know them. My whole thing was the safety of the students in the building .
This has been another point of interest, how the police arrived. Were they all SROs? Were some of them city police?
To my knowledge, the ones I was talking to, they were all SROs. I don't know. Every officer that I talked to I knew from within PPS. They work at some other schools in the city, which I thought was good because they have a relationship with the students.
And how fast did they get here?
I would say probably within five or so minutes after I received the initial phone call from Antonio.
What's your estimate on what time the communications became more clear?
I would say maybe 10 to 15 minutes after the Lincoln kids arrived and started chanting and cheering and our kids were getting wound up. I was on the phone with PPS and they were asking me, are you keeping the kids in? And I said, we're in the lockout. I think our kids want to go. And they were like, okay, let them go.
Was this again with Lopez?
That was with [Chief of Staff] Amanda Whalen.
So then, kids are gradually filtering out. At some point, do you have any idea how many Benson students join the protest?
Initially, kids just filtering out, maybe 3 or 4, 5 or 6, walking out there. And I was like, you're either going to be with them or you're coming in because we're having a lockout. Once it was decided that Benson can be a part of it, then I would say maybe about 40 to 50 came out.
The ironic part was that the kids that were filtering out, I'm being honest, they looked at me and said, What are they doing here? And I said They're protesting. And they said, They're protesting what? And I said, The school board vote last night. And they said, OK, I'll see you later. And they just went and joined.
The majority of kids did not know what was going on. Maybe a select handful who maybe got something via social media, but the mass did not know.
What's your view of the original decision to impose a lockout?
I believe with the sheer number of students heading toward Benson, and the unknown that was coming our way, I don't know what else I could have done in working with the district. Because if we hadn't done the lockout, there's no protocol.
What if they decided they want to come in? I'm outnumbered 800-1,000 to five. We're not going to ever put hands on students. So they would have been able to just walk into the building.
And you had no idea whether the Lincoln students would want to come directly into the building?
We didn't know if they wanted to come in or keep walking. If they were just going to pass by or if they wanted our students. A lot of stuff has come into social media. But at that moment, we knew nothing. Or at least I knew nothing.
The student leaders here and at Lincoln said they thought that Benson students' civil liberties had been violated. What do you think of that?
I really can't speak on the civil liberties issue, all I can say is we would have gladly participated in this protest if we had ample opportunity to get prepared and to get involved as Lincoln was in getting this together. And we just weren't.
For me, as the principal, as a black male, who has a school who is basically predominately students of color, the last thing that I would ever have happen is injustice to students of color here at Benson. So I feel that, in working with the district, I and the district did what was prudent in making sure that students here at Benson were safe. We can be second-guessed all you want, I get it.
So the protest is over the bond. Do you have a view on that?
As a person who is a part of this bond package, I hope that they're doing what's best for those three schools. And I believe that if this has to go to May, that there's a good, solid reason why it has to go to May 17. It's hard for me to second-guess seven individuals.
Do you think that the lockout was a mistake?
Putting the building in a lockout did what it was supposed to do. It kept students in, and it kept students out. And I think once the conversation started a few minutes later, realizing that Benson students want to participate in this, we should let them go.
The doors were never locked. We can't run around and lock the doors that fast. And students realized, some students just pushed the door and went out. And I was like, Okay, just know that if you don't make it back in time you'll be marked absent. And they were like, Okay Mr. Wilson, see you later.
As far as I was told, when I first inquired about it and on Friday the district was not acknowledging that a lockout meant that kids couldn't leave the building.
I know what a lockout is. No one in. No one out.
I know a lot of parents won't be swayed by my discussion with them. But I feel that we did all we could do based on the situation that we were dealt in that moment. Before this happened, I was just in a gym setting up basketballs. All the sudden, I'm in crisis mode. Now a week later, it's picked up steam. It hasn't died down.
On Tuesday, Benson students confronted anti-gay protesters outside their school. What did you learn about the First Amendment in the last week?
It's very powerful. It's very special. People have the right to their First Amendment speech.