Listen to town hall, beginning with Principal Batenga
“I will not discuss the suspensions in this forum,” Northwestern High School Principal Edgar Batenga said Monday evening at a town hall at the Hyattsville school. Batenga gave five-day suspensions to four students, and possibly shorter suspensions to others, for their alleged role in organizing an attempted walkout on March 1, which was billed as a National Day of Action to Defend Public Education.
A flier entitled “The Students Are Angry!” listed some of the students’ concerns which led to their walkout: unsanitary conditions and food; large class sizes, commonly with 40-plus students; poor teacher pay and treatment, especially regarding the deportation of Filipino teachers; underfunded programs such as band and ESOL; and an overall environment where “students have pretty much no say in educational policies.”
The attempted walkout, which students codenamed “Project XBox,” was met by force as administrators and police blocked doors and prevented students from leaving the school, according to numerous student accounts. “I would like an apology from Mr. Jones for being hit in the face just because I was trying to walkout,” a female student said Monday, before adding that it was the administration and not the students who were violent.
“At no time did any staff members block any doors,” Principal Batenga told audience members. Batenga and Corporal Michael Rudinski, Northwestern’s School Resource Officer, said the large police presence at the school that day was a coincidence, nothing more. The police on campus, including the K-9 unit, were “scheduled for a firearms classroom training,” explained Rudinski, who teaches the class on school grounds.
“Shouldn’t you let the students know that there’s going to be classes like that?” asked a student, who pointed out that far from having a calming effect, police could escalate things by scaring students. This may be particularly true at a school like Northwestern where students are overwhelmingly African American and Latino, and are likely aware that U.S. law enforcement is off the charts when it comes to throwing people who look like them behind bars.
A number of students questioned whether they weren’t already under some form of lockdown. Is Northwestern “a learning center or is it a jail?” asked a student who transferred from Montgomery County. “I feel as if I’m inmate 441733 with a 2.5 GPA,” said a freshman. “When they see me they don’t see a smile, they just see a GPA… Why is that?”
The question wasn’t answered. Instead the mics were cut off and the administration walked off, fifteen minutes before the meeting was scheduled to end. Using Occupy Wall Street’s signature mic check, students continued to address their principal. “Mr. Batenga, listen to your community,” they said. Then they loudly chanted, “Remove the suspensions!”
(The audio accompanying this piece aired in full on We Act Radio 1480 AM WPWC.)