Four Prince George's County students were suspended for planning a classtime protest at their high school, sparking an uproar in the community.
Northwestern High School administrators say they were protecting students by heading off a walkout planned on March 1, but community leaders and students characterize the response as a harsh violation of free speech.
An online petition to get the suspensions lifted has drawn signatures from residents across Maryland and as far away as Chicago. Many residents turned out at the Hyattsville school Monday night for a public forum with Principal Edgar Batenga.
"I hope that there is some sort of administrative review of this process and that the suspension of the students, if upheld, do not go on their permanent record," said Christian Rhodes, education liaison for Prince George's County Executive' Rushern Baker.
The four students aren't typical "bad kids" -- one has a 4.5 grade point average -- but a suspension on their records could hinder their chances of getting into college.
"They should be praised for their independent thinking and critically minded ability, not punished," said Zach Zill, a community activist who is working as an informal spokesman for the students.
Led by the four organizers, more than 300 Northwestern students had planned to file out of school mid-day to protest large class sizes, lack of teacher payraises, and the firing of two Filipino teachers whose work visas expired. El Cambio, a Northwestern student group dedicated to social justice, organized the effort with the Occupy movement's National Student Day of Action.
Batenga caught wind of their plans -- code-named "Project Xbox" -- through Twitter the night before. The next morning, he pulled the suspected organizers into his office and instructed students not to participate.
Confusion ensued for 15 to 20 minutes. Batenga said that at 2:40 p.m., the planned time of the walkout, students began running through the hallways and "things were thrown off the balcony."
The Hyattsville police, on campus for a training session, "secured the grounds," Batenga said.
"My main concern was making sure all 2,400 students in this building were safe and that all 2,400 students had the opportunity for their education."