BERWYN, Ill. — All we wanted to do was send a message of peace and “bring an end to the conflict in Iraq,” student Matt Heffernan told reporters in front of Morton West High School here Nov. 6.
Heffernan is a junior at Morton West, just outside Chicago in the working-class suburb of Berwyn. About 20 parents and their children joined Heffernan in a press conference outside the school.
Heffernan, along with other classmates, led a Nov. 1 lunch period sit-in of about 70 students to protest the Iraq war. School officials suspended many of the protesters and threatened them with expulsions.
After heated outrage and pressure from parents, students, local peace groups, Rainbow/PUSH and free speech advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, District 201 Supt. Ben Nowakowski issued a statement Nov. 13 saying that the 38 students suspended and those who faced expulsion will be cleared and could return to class.
Parents are now planning to talk with the school board to make sure the penalties don’t appear on the students’ records.
Nowakowski and the local school board originally charged the students with “gross disobedience and mob activity,” saying they disrupted the educational process and potentially caused harm to other students during the peaceful protest.
The students told reporters that school officials said if they moved the protest to another location and out of the cafeteria, they would face only Saturday detention. The students complied, and when they moved, school officials cordoned off the protesters with yellow “caution” tape and barricaded the area with tables so others couldn’t join them. Many of the students left after being intimidated.
Heffernan said he and the 70 other students, mostly white and Latino, just wanted to raise awareness about the effects of the war. “People say it doesn’t affect them, but we say it does,” he said.
“I’d like to go back to school,” Heffernan told the World before the expulsion threat was called off. “I didn’t do this to be disobedient, I just wanted to promote peace and to say ‘bring the troops home.’ That’s why I had to do this.”
Barbara Maniotis, a junior, also spoke to reporters, saying, “We have been in this war for five years now. The more support, the better our chances of getting out.”
On Nov. 7, hundreds of parents, students, college antiwar activists, Vietnam veterans and free speech advocates showed up at the school district’s board meeting calling on officials to reconsider their actions and not expel the students.
Many say school officials overreacted.
Most meeting attendees praised the students for speaking out and said their First Amendment rights should protect them.
Adam Szwarek, another student protester, said the sit-in was in part due to the increased presence of military recruiters who are on campus four times a week. “Everyday the military is trying to get us to do push-ups,” said Szwarek. “They are supporting death, mayhem and murder, and what we did was the opposite.”
“Expel the military recruiters, not the students,” one parent demanded, speaking for others, as well.
Jonathan Acevedo, 16, played guitar and sang “Kumbaya” and “Give Peace a Chance” during the lunchtime protest as students held hands and carried peace signs.
“I think the war is unjust,” Acevedo told the World. “Too many people and children have died, and it’s just not right to me.”
Acevedo said he thought about joining the military at one point.
“Recruiters come and try to say that war is cool,” he said. “But then I asked myself, ‘What is the point?’ It wouldn’t be worth wasting my life.”
He added, “The war is affecting our economy. We shouldn’t be paying for something we don’t believe in. That money could be used for curing diseases.”
Acevedo’s mother, Alma Moran, supports her son and said the expulsion penalty was too harsh. “These kids don’t deserve to be expelled,” she told the World in a phone interview.
Moran added, “They should not lose their future just because they speak out. It was a very peaceful protest.”
Mark Serpico, the father of one of the suspended students, agrees. “Our children are slowly losing their freedoms, and I’m not going to put up with it,” he said. “Why are we there anyway — for oil?”
Serpico said his son’s involvement in the protest was “awesome.”
“I’m behind him 100 percent,” he said.