TURNERS FALLS — About 120 students from Turners Falls High School walked out of classes on Wednesday to protest Tuesday night’s School Committee vote to change the school’s mascot.
Students left classes shortly after noon, and walked 1.3 miles from the high school to the superintendent’s office in the school district’s administration building near Sheffield School. They discussed the issue with the superintendent.
“I met with the students for about 20 minutes this afternoon and they were very respectful with their statements and questions,” Superintendent Michael Sullivan said in an email Wednesday afternoon. “They are a great student body and I understand they do not feel listened to. I do not yet know what consequences there will be, if any, for students who walked out.”
After months of discussion and sometimes acrimonious public debate, the Gill-Montague School Committee voted Tuesday night, 6-3, to remove the Indian mascot.
Students said they decided to walk out and talk to Sullivan because they felt their voices hadn’t been heard in the process. The School Committee meeting, which was scheduled in advance, overlapped with the varsity basketball team’s senior night. The student council had planned a survey on the issue for this week, and students were disappointed they didn’t have the chance to express their views before the vote.
“Throughout this whole process, we haven’t been listened to,” said Jordyn Fiske, a senior who participated in the walkout.
She said the senior class created a Facebook group after the vote and started organizing.
Students walked in the street with a Montague Police escort requested by the district to keep the students safe, according to Sullivan. Many students were wearing school clothing with the Indian logo on their T-shirts and sweatshirts, and the group was led by several students carrying the “Turners Falls Marching Indians” marching band banner. The banner also has a picture of the Indian mascot.
Executive Assistant to the Superintendent Sabrina Blanchard said that about 120 students came to the office. The district did not allow media or parents inside.
Sullivan said he agrees with the School Committee in that the decision should not have been made by a majority vote.
“Your views are important, your opinions are important, but it’s a civil rights decision and it’s not the way our country makes progress,” Sullivan said to students in a Facebook Live video posted by a student.
Despite being unable to enter the building, parents supportive of the students cause gathered outside the building, cheering at times, taking photos and following the student-marchers in their cars and honking horns.
Kera Reid, a parent and a graduate of the high school, came out on Wednesday when she heard what was happening. She encouraged her son to participate if he wanted to, but was worried about possible consequences because he’s on the basketball team.
She said her son is quiet and isn’t usually one to take a stand, so she was pleasantly surprised when she learned he had joined the walkout. She said the walkout was a way for students to express themselves.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” she said.
Jennifer Corridan also came out to support the students. She said her son asked her if it was OK if he participated in the walk-out and she wholeheartedly agreed.
“These kids were promised an opportunity to be heard, but because the School Committee allowed themselves to be bullied into an early vote, that was stripped from them,” she said. “I support the kids’ decision.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Turners Falls High School Principal Annie Leonard started the morning announcements with a statement about the vote. Leonard said she and the school supported the right for students to have free expression and opinions about the vote.
“I support your right to free expression,” she said. “In a school setting, those expressions of opinion or protest need to be safe, they need to be nonviolent,” she said. “They need to not do harm to people or to property and those taking action need to be prepared to accept any consequences of their actions. This does not mean that there are consequences for the expression of an opinion, but that school rules and consequences still apply where actions like leaving class are concerned.”
Leonard said she doesn’t have any additional information about the vote but that she would keep the students updated as the process moves forward.
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