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Peace sign, anti-war slogans stir debate

A crowd of 150 people packed the Intermediate School community room to voice objections to the high school’s recent ban of the peace symbol on students T-shirts depicting the names of the more than 2,300 Americans killed during the Iraq War. - Jeff VanDerford
A crowd of 150 people packed the Intermediate School community room to voice objections to the high school’s recent ban of the peace symbol on students T-shirts depicting the names of the more than 2,300 Americans killed during the Iraq War.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

The South Whidbey Board of Education was hit by a perfect storm Monday night when citizens and staff members gathered to protest the hiring process for the new Langley Middle School principal, the firing of the girl’s basketball coach and the high school’s decision to ban peace signs on shirts displaying the names of the American men and women killed in Iraq.

The standing-room only crowd of about 150 people applauded and cheered as speakers defended the right to free speech and heard impassioned speeches by student basketball players praising their winning coach.

The crowd was also told the hiring decision of the new principal for the middle school was postponed.

The testimony stretched for roughly two hours, and district officials later said the storm had a silver lining.

“It was civic engagement at its finest,” said school board president Rich Parker.

“I was proud of our community last night,” Parker said.

The mostly highly-charged issue Monday night: Last week’s decision to prohibit students from wearing peace symbols and anti-war phrases on T-shirts bearing the names of American soldiers killed in the Iraq War.

Members of the newly formed Young Democrats Club at South Whidbey High School wore the shirts on the third anniversary of the war, but they were told to put tape over the cost of the war, peace symbols and anti-war slogans on their shirts.

The newly elected board of the Young Democrats agreed with school officials to only display the names of the dead service men and women. School administrators feared that the combination of the names and peace symbols would be disruptive to some students.

Both students and school officials tried to tamp down the controversy as the firestorm continued to grow.

On Monday morning before school, about 40 adults demonstrated across the street from the school. The controversy also received national attention from film producer Mike Moore’s Website, and off-island reporters began to pick up on the controversy.

Bill Harper, the student president of the Young Democrats, said the club supported the decision on what would be allowed on the T-shirt.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Harper said.

He said he was disappointed that the focus had shifted from 2,400 dead in Iraq to the peace symbol.

Francesca Coenen-Winer, 14, a South Whidbey freshman and a Young Democrats member, said she is happy the school allows the new club. But she felt students didn’t realize they had a choice on what could go on the T-shirts.

“Yes, the T-shirts were a protest against the Iraq war,” she said.

She received a standing ovation from the crowd for her passionate speech.

Many adults speaking on the subject objected to the censorship of the peace symbol and believed the incident was an important lesson in free speech for the students.

“Adults need to back the students’ right to free speech,” said John Hurd.

“This policy has to do with fear and a need for control. There is something disturbing on those T-shirts, the names of people who have died,” said Kord Roosen-Runge.

“Politics is not the central issue here. A healthy learning environment and the First Amendment is,” he said.

Several citizens pointed out that students don’t leave their civil rights at the door of their school.

“I am having a serious case of deja vu,” said Marianne Edain, who was involved in the Free Speech Movement in 1964 in Berkeley, Calif.

Dean Enell said he objected to the censoring of the peace symbol.

“The peace symbol has never been anything but a sign of peace,” he said.

School officials have since backed away from last week’s ban of peace signs and other anti-war symbols. A press release issued Monday said peace signs and other symbols of political, social and personal views were not banned at the high school, and school officials said they didn’t mean to impede on the students’ constitutional right of free speech.

“It was not the intent of the administration to violate the freedom of speech of our students. Individual students who wish to disregard the agreement of the school administration and club participants may do so if they do not create a true danger of disruption,” the press release said.

“The school’s motive was to provide a respectful climate to stimulate honest debate and dialogue regarding real issues, and the club’s leader and several members agreed.”

Others came to talk about the hiring process for the new principal at the middle school. Some say they were ignored by Superintendent Bob Brown during the candidate review process.

On Thursday, Brown announced his choice for a new principal to the staff at the middle school, and it was expected that the board would approve the decision Monday night.

But 20 middle school staffers gathered outside the community room to greet board members as they arrived for a closed-door meeting earlier in the day, urging them to “slow down” and not rush a decision.

An earlier move to fill the soon-vacant superintendent’s position also drew fire earlier this month.

In a surprise decision, Brown defused staffers when he announced he would be tabling his decision until he could meet with the middle school’s hiring committee Tuesday afternoon, and added he would delay the final decision for 10 days. The three finalists for the position are Randy Health, Rod Merrell and former LMS principal Greg Willis.

“You’ve done something powerful, you’ve listened to us. We thank you for tabling the decision,” said Erik Jokinen, a middle school teacher.

On Thursday, school workers sent a letter to the community that accused Brown of ignoring the principal committee’s overwhelming choice for the job and instead picked the “far last place” candidate.

“The district leadership has chosen to continue to strive for mediocrity while fostering an atmosphere of know morale and distrust,” the letter said.

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