June 5, 2008
WESTMINSTER — Students from Bellows Falls Union High School got a lesson in American civics Tuesday as about 30 students staged a walkout to protest the Iraq War.
The protesters were met by about a dozen supporters of American policy in the Middle East.
And while administrators kept the two groups far apart, students from both sides made sure their voices were heard.
“This is nice but we all need to get involved in the political process,” said Brendan McPherson, 14, who helped organize the walkout. “We need to write our local newspapers and call our Congressmen. There is so much to do. This is a small step toward something greater.”
About 20 students from BFUHS got up and left their classes 30 minutes before the final period was scheduled to end.
They were joined by about 10 students from Compass School, which is across the street from the high school.
As the anti-war protesters gathered in front of the school, a small group of boys walked toward them shouting, “Support the war,” and “Let it go on.”
Josh Pratt, 16, a sophomore, said he was planning to join the Marines.
They don’t know what’s going on. They’re all confused,” he said as his cohorts yelled at the protesters. “They appreciate the benefits of this country and then they screw us over. They should move to Canada.”
McPherson said he was encouraged by the turnout and also said he welcomed the opposition.
“The best way to end the war is by negotiating with both sides,” he said. “It’s good they have a different opinion.”
BFUHS Principal Chris Hodsden knew the walkout was planned and he stood out in front of the school before the students appeared. Hodsden, who served in the Navy, said he supported the students’ right to protest and respected their point of view, but he said he would have been happier to have them do it when school was over.
“We have final exams coming up and every moment in the classroom is precious,” Hodsden said. “I am a big fan of all the freedoms that go along with being a citizen of this great country, and peaceful protest is part of that, but they could have done it at 2:45 just as easily as 2:15.”
Hodsden declined to say if the students, on either side of the protest, would be receiving detentions for leaving class.
Angus Gunn, 16, a student who was protesting the war, said it was important for the group to leave school to make their point.
“The Iraq War is more important than the last 30 minutes of class,” he said. “The students put this together to show there are things more important than education. The Iraq War is an important issue we need to address.”
The protesting group held signs that read “diplomacy now,” and “give peace a chance.”
As the afternoon wore on the group stood at one end of the sidewalk. Buses showed up and some in the group congratulated each other on the action.
Mike McDougal, 16, first thought about staging a walkout earlier in the year, and as the school year drew to close, he decided it was time to pull it off.
He sent out e-mail messages and spread the word, even sending press releases to area newspapers.
McDougal said when he talked to people at the school there seemed to be widespread support and was expecting a larger turnout, but he was still satisfied with the showing and with the statement they made.
“We have to stop the senseless slaughter. Having the conversation is a success,” he said. “I know more kids wanted to be here but maybe they chickened out. It takes courage to stand up and walk out.”
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