Demonstrating Exploitation

A Latino activist group has gained largely positive media coverage for organizing student walkouts to protest government social policies. But how admirable is it, really, to endanger young children for political purposes?

While Everett students were walking out, Mission High School administrators spotted organizers handing out fliers, and the principal of Philip and Sara Burton High School saw people outside the school trying to "lure" kids to the walkout via a megaphone.

Once the walkout was in full swing, an unusual number of missing-child reports flooded the SFPD. A group of parents who happened to be volunteering and working at Everett that Thursday morning soon learned of the walkout and got involved in the search for missing students.

Ruth Wilson, mother of an Everett student, says she'd heard there would be a protest, but she believed it would involve a march around the school. Wilson says she had no idea her daughter would be heading off to San Leandro.

Eventually, Wilson followed other students onto BART to San Leandro, where she found her daughter in the crowd. But it was not a reassuring scene. Wilson says she saw a sea of students, some clueless and others disorderly. "There were children there crying. There were children of 11 years old. Many of them were wandering around confused. Many of them were fighting, throwing garbage around -- it was a disaster," she says.

The parents, who never found out who organized the walkout, have plenty to say about it.

"As a parent, I was really upset. I don't know who these people are. ... Kids have a right to protest, but under safe conditions," Sandra Estrada said in a recent Thursday parent coffee hour at Everett. "Whatever cause they have, they are using kids."

The October walkout was just the first chapter of Olin's showdown with the San Francisco Unified School District.

School officials, who took minor, seemingly legitimate disciplinary actions against some students who walked out, were soon labeled by Olin as oppressors of First Amendment rights.

About two weeks after the San Leandro walkout, Olin organizers showed up with about 150 supporters at an SFUSD board meeting. The Olin protesters not only demanded an apology from the school district and a cancellation of disciplinary measures taken against students who left class; they asked the district to praise the students who joined the walkout.

For two hours, Olin organizers and supporters spoke, shouted, whistled, and blew horns ferociously. The school board was forced to give up that night's regular agenda, after repeated, failed attempts to calm the crowd.

One after another, Olin student supporters went to the microphone. "I want to know why you are trying to put down our youth voices, if we are the future of this country, of this world. ... Why do you put our voices in chains?" one student shouted at the top of his lungs.

"You guys are a bunch of hypocrites," another student yelled. "You guys put up Martin Luther King on your walls and everything. We are trying to do his work that he passed on. You suspend us. What is wrong with that?"

And one after another, self-styled "progressive" activists from the Mission District also spoke in defense of the walkout.

"I am here to support the students, to say I am proud and incredibly inspired by the activism of the young people in this room," said Ana Maria Loya, executive director of La Raza Centro Legal, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for Latino immigrants. "No students who participated in the walkout should have in their student files any reference to the walkout as a form of punishment. ... Instead they should be praised."

Joining Loya to testify on behalf of Olin that night were Reva Enteen, program director of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization of volunteer lawyers who are often involved in First Amendment issues; Renee Saucedo, an attorney with La Raza Centro Legal; and Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which is dedicated to fighting police brutality.

With Olin leaders threatening more trouble, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas promised on the spot to suspend all disciplinary actions taken against students, and ordered an investigation of all events surrounding the walkout.

Olin had won -- even though what it had protested against, excessive punishment, had not happened.

The district's investigation showed no students had been expelled or formally suspended for participating in the walkout. School officials say the discipline that was meted out consisted of calling parents, to let them know their children had skipped class, or assigning students to detention periods. Such actions are not noted in students' official records.

"We have disciplining procedures taking effect -- it does not matter what the destination is," says Sally Chou, who, as principal of Galileo High, had to deal with a number of students who walked out. "On the day of the supposed 'walkout,' we did not deal with the 'walkout'; we dealt with students being off campus without permission."

Although Olin's protests against excessive punishment apparently were groundless, two weeks later Olin organizers stormed Chou's office. During a lunch hour late in October, about 40 Olin supporters and organizers snuck into Galileo High and forced their way into Chou's office, chanting.

While the two sides disagree on what transpired that day at Galileo, there clearly was an uncivil exchange, with plenty of finger-pointing and accusations of rudeness from both camps. The standoff ended when the police came and, to avoid being arrested for trespassing, Olin protesters left.

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