PORTLAND, Ore. -- Portland Public Schools has released a statement defending the actions it took during a protest at Benson High School, after students accused the school district of violating their rights to free speech.
Student body leaders from Lincoln and Benson high schools criticized Portland Public Schools in a letter sent Sunday night for initiating a lockout at Benson during a walkout by more than 1,000 Lincoln students last week.
The walkout, which took place the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 7, was in protest to the school board's decision not schedule a meeting on Sept. 8 to hear public comments regarding the delay of an upcoming bond measure that would lead to significant structural improvements at four schools, including Lincoln and Benson.
The protest began at Lincoln, made its way to Pioneer Courthouse Square and City Hall and ended at Benson. In the lead-up to the walkout, students at Benson and Madison High had been invited to participate. But when the student protesters arrived at Benson, they were met by a police line and a lockout inside the building.
PPS said that while a lockout was in place, Benson students were free to leave. But signs on the front doors at Benson read "LOCKOUT: NO ONE IN OR OUT" and a Benson student told the Willamette Week there were security guards and teachers "standing at every door."
On Wednesday, interim superintendent Bob McKean said he initiated a lockout at Benson because of student safety, as the school was unprepared to take in 1,000 students from Lincoln High School.
"Our safety policies require all visitors to check in at the front office, provide identification, and check out on departure," McKean said in a statement. "In order to ensure the safety of all students...I approved the lockout."
He said the message that students were free to leave was not delivered to all students and staff.
The Associated Student Body leaders, who voiced their displeasure in a joint letter sent to PPS staff and media, wrote that "the lockout effectively silenced the voices of Benson students during the main portion of the protest" and that "ordering officers to barricade the entrance — as is standard lockout procedure — limits free speech rights without increasing student safety."
The student leaders asked PPS to submit all internal communications regarding the incident, a scheduled public meeting to discuss the issue and a statement from the school district "promising that student free speech rights will not be violated in this manner in the future."
PPS said it is reviewing its policies for future events.
Below is the full text of the letter sent by the ASB:
Official Joint Benson and Lincoln Student Statement Regarding the Benson Lockout
On Wednesday, September 7 at 9 am, over a thousand Lincoln students walked out of school. This was in protest of the School Board’s September 6 decision to not schedule a Thursday morning meeting to hear more public comment regarding the timing of the proposed school bond. The proposed school bond — originally scheduled for the November 2016 ballot — was moved to the May 2017 ballot on July 25. This decision was made on the basis of several private conversations and was announced to the Board with a minimal board comment period and no public vote, unprecedented for an issue of this magnitude. The bond would rebuild Madison, Benson, Lincoln, and Kellogg, while providing much-needed funds towards remediating various safety issues district-wide, especially lead, asbestos, and radon. The walkout — which was entirely student-run and which was organized and directed without any adult input — started at Lincoln, made its way to Pioneer Square and City Hall, and finished at Benson High School, where protesters were met with a police line and a lockout inside the building.
The protest was organized in twelve hours, in the aftermath of the School Board’s decision on Tuesday night, September. Had the School Board agreed to schedule a meeting for Thursday morning at any point before the protest started on 9 am Wednesday, the walkout would have been immediately cancelled.
The protest was peaceful and respectful. Six Lincoln teachers and one school resource officer were approved to leave the building and were present throughout the protest to ensure student safety. Lincoln students walked to Benson in a show of support and solidarity with Benson students — that was the sole intent of the march to Benson. Lincoln students never intended to enter Benson’s building. The protest’s student leaders communicated this to security personnel present at Benson. Upon arriving at Benson, all protesters were directed to stay out of the building, remain on the sidewalk and front lawn, and protest peacefully there, which they did.
All school board members were made aware of the walkout through an email from protest organizers on the evening of September 6. There was also ample press coverage of the promise to walkout if the board refused to hold a community meeting. Throughout, Benson and Madison students were invited to walk-out along with Lincoln. Although communication between Lincoln, Benson, and Madison students before the protest was difficult — since no prior connection between student leadership at the schools existed — the Benson students that desired to walkout once protesters arrived at Benson should have been allowed to freely do so.
As a result, initiating a lockout was a significant overreaction and an unnecessary measure by PPS leadership. The lockout effectively silenced the voices of Benson students during the main portion of the protest. Signs on the front doors at Benson read “LOCKOUT: NO ONE IN OR OUT,” and PPS lockout procedure states that students must “return and remain inside the school building.” Word eventually spread through the Benson student body that they were free to leave, yet this occurred thirty to forty-five minutes after the lockout was started, at which point Benson students flooded out of the building to join the protest. Initiating the lockout severely limited Benson students’ ability to “within state and Federal law, District policy, and school guidelines, have freedom of expression and assembly under the First Amendment,” as noted in the ‘Freedom of Expression and Assembly’ section of the ‘Student Responsibilities Rights and Discipline’ handbook distributed to all PPS students. As far as we can tell — and as was our intent — the protest fell within all of those laws, policies, and guidelines.
There was no district directive to effectively communicate the situation and the issue with students before the protest, during, the protest, or after the protest. This could have been easily accomplished through a district-wide email, through the District’s social media accounts, and through PA announcements at all high schools. This lack of communication on a district level is unacceptable, and district officials who ordered and supported the lockout must be held accountable for this rash and unnecessary action.
Although we understand the need for safety, we believe that the safety of all PPS students was never threatened during the peaceful protest and that a lockout was completely uncalled for. School resource officers were present on the Benson campus to ensure the safety of all students, but ordering officers to barricade the entrance — as is standard lockout procedure — limits free speech rights without increasing student safety.
We believe PPS violated the civil liberties of Benson students. We formally request that Portland Public Schools provide a full disclosure and submittal to the Benson and Lincoln ASB leadership of all communications related to this issue internally at PPS, its board members and/or staff, PPS Campus Security, Portland Police, and other individuals related to this incident. We request that this information is provided as soon as possible. We also request that the district schedule a public meeting on this issue, with the goal of evaluating district procedure in this situation and subsequently creating new Board policy regarding student protest rights.
Lastly, we request that Portland Public Schools issue a statement promising that student free speech rights will not be violated in this manner in the future. We will continue to advocate and fight for equality, free speech, and district transparency for the benefit of all students.
Benson ASB President Teresa Tran
Student Bond Advocate Michael Ioffe
Benson ASB Secretary Lisa Lau
Lincoln ASB co-President Marin Christensen
Lincoln ASB co-President Riley Wilson