Oak Park River Forest High School students said their sit-in has led to some concessions with school district administrators.
The students staged a sit-in Monday to protest what they believe to be disciplinary action by school administrators against a teacher and another staff member. The two staff had taken part in an earlier walkout organized by students.
Last Tuesday, February 26, students at the west suburban high school along with kids from nearby Julian Percy Middle School planned a walkout to mark the anniversary of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Martin was the black teenager shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. OPRF teacher Anthony Clark walked with students that day. That was against a directive that faculty were not permitted to participate.
Clark confirmed to WBEZ that he had been placed on leave this past Friday. He declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement that he will always place supporting students before supporting a “broken system.”
“If I and others are to be scapegoats to institutional failures, so be it, as long as it leads to communities where all stakeholders have access to opportunity no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, immigrant status, religion, or age,” he wrote.
Students and community members said school secretary Shoneice Reynolds was also placed on leave, but it is unclear why.
Monday morning, about a hundred OPRF students sat inside the high school near the main entrance, which was partially cordoned off by yellow caution tape. The students were demanding that Clark and Reynolds be reinstated.
“Clark and Reynolds were paramount in engaging students in civic and community strategies on racial equity and higher learning,” OPRF students wrote in a statement.
Some parents and community members came to support students early in the day. However, parents, community members and reporters were not allowed in the school to observe the protest. John Duffy, a leader with the school’s Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education, said he was at the student walkout last week. He said Clark helped keep the peace, especially for the middle school students.\
“It started getting a little rowdy…Mr. Clark took that microphone and redirected that energy and calmed those students. If he hadn’t been there, who knows what would’ve happened,” Duffy said.
Duffy said he’s had six children graduate from OPRF, and he continues to stay involved with the school. He said the administration is not being upfront about their actions toward Clark and Reynolds, and it’s causing a disruption to the school.
Senior Grace Gunn, who was part of a student group that met with administrators, said the students were able to reach some agreements with the adults. Students asked for a safe space managed by a staff member of their choosing while Clark and Reynolds are away. They also asked administrators to give a status update on their investigation by Wednesday. Gunn said while she was disappointed that Clark and Reynolds would not be immediately reinstated, she was pleased the administration agreed to the other demands.
“We did have some type of progression today, and kids were able to express their truth to the administration. And I hope that put some type of pressure on them,” she said.
Gunn said students were not planning to hold a second day of protests, but she is leaving room for action later in the week.
OPRF administrators confirmed that the demands Gunn outlined were accepted by the administration. They would not comment directly on the status of the two staff members or reasons for their leaves, but they issued a statement confirming that certain staff have been placed on leave while the district reviews what happened at last week’s student march.
“The leave is not a decision of wrongdoing but rather a standard approach when the District is conducting a personnel review,” the statement said. “As always, the District’s first priority is the safety of our students.”