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Ernest Hooper: A salute to the students who walked out in support of teachers

By Ernest Hooper
Students at Jefferson High School in Tampa left class Wednesday 11/08/17 in support of teacher pay raises. Hundreds of students at Hillsborough high schools joined the walkout [News 10 WTSP]

When I was in grade school, I landed in the principal’s office and they called my mom down to the school.

She arrived and delivered one stern warning: "If I have to come down to this school again, you’re going to be in trouble."

"But, but, but ..."

"But nothing. And I mean that thing."

That moment shapes my parenting perspective today, one in which I work to openly side with teachers and school administrators even if I might privately disagree. I’m the dad who likes to back the district in its efforts to instill rules and maintain order.

However, I’m compelled to salute the students who chose to walk out of class Tuesday and Wednesday at various high schools around Hillsborough County. The teens decided to stand up and stand out as a show of solidarity with teachers embroiled in contract negotiations with the district.

Tensions have boiled up between the district and the Hillsborough County Teachers Association ever since district negotiators balked at delivering an expected pay raise, noting it would cost $17 million to give roughly a third of the 14,000 teachers raises of $4,000, which they expect to receive every three years if they have high enough evaluation scores.

The district is in the midst of a budget crisis and wants to forgo the raises so, negotiators say, it can avoid layoffs. The union says they should re-examine other spending, including the growing number of administrators earning more than $100,000 a year.

Whether you agree with the district or the teachers, the walk out by students — reportedly 15 minutes conducted with peace and quiet — merits respect.

I understand the U.S. Supreme Court does not extend constitutional rights to school students, deferring to the authority of principals who must diminish disruptions and maintain control. I understand freedom of speech and freedom of press are not protected within the bounds of a school.

However, this nation was founded on acts of civil disobedience — men polluting the Boston Harbor with overtaxed tea. Successful protests call attention to an issue peaceably but demonstrably. By design, they should create a level of discomfort.

At some schools, principals have acted punitively, utilizing in-school suspensions, referrals and marks in a student’s permanent file to try to curb the behavior. That’s too bad, because such actions are antithetical to education’s mission.

These are teachable moments and the lessons shouldn’t be taught with punishment and threats to impair a student’s ability to get into college. The kids are courageously following in the footsteps of some of our greatest citizens in trying to show support and bring about change.

If given a choice, how do we want our students to respond to this issue? With apathy and indifference, or care and concern for the men and women touching their lives on a daily basis? I’m heartened by the show of love. It’s a great statement about the work of the teachers and the relationship they have with the students.

Instead of deterrent action, principals should create boundaries and offer an acceptable time and place for the students to express their views without disrupting the day. A 15-minute silent display allows students to engage and teachers to feel love. Principals may not want to encourage a daily demonstration, but they also shouldn’t discourage.

As for the district, it’s created an atmosphere where everyone seems to be making sacrifices except the top-heavy administration. Students have worked in classrooms without air conditioning, some bus drivers remain unhappy with conditions, parents will have to adjust to a new bell schedule and now teachers are being asked to forgo bonuses.

The district can point to cost-cutting measures that have frozen hundreds of positions and shaved tens of millions of dollars in salary costs by shedding more than 600 employees through attrition and reassignments, but difficult times demand that sacrifice begins with the leaders.

Talk about demonstrations. Superintendent Jeff Eakins hasn’t made a show of reducing staff or costs in the downtown office. We shouldn’t want to see anyone lose their job, but even a symbolic cut in pay among the top brass would make a bitter pill easier to swallow for the teachers.

The impasse likely will grow and at some point both sides may have to accept a compromise that neither likes. In the interim, however, we should celebrate the bond between teacher and student and hope that the testament they make today will be remembered well into the future.

I think my mom, God rest her soul, would stand with them.

That’s all I’m saying.