MARYSVILLE — The tension built.
For a week, Totem Middle School students met after class in the library, posted messages on MySpace and whispered conversations in the hall. They made signs, painted T-shirts and circulated petitions.
When the clock hit 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, they were ready.
They walked out.
Around 200 students risked suspension and broke school rules to demand more discipline.
Claiming they’re sometimes afraid to go to class, they asked administrators to dole out tougher and more equitable punishments for things such as fighting, bringing alcohol to school and smoking marijuana.
“The students that have been committing these offenses have been doing them multiple times and the most they get is a two- or three-day suspension,” said eighth-grader Farrah Wolgamott, who helped organized the protest. “We don’t really feel safe because they don’t get expelled. We think people are going to bring it to the next level and bring guns and knives to school.”
Gail Miller, assistant superintendent of the Marysville School District, said she can’t remember another time when students asked for more discipline.
With eight fights, February was a difficult month for Totem, she said. However, the school only had one fight in January. The district’s other middle schools also had more fights last month and Miller thinks the increase probably has a lot to do with the time of year.
At the protest, students rallied for an hour and a half around the school’s trademark totem pole, waving signs with slogans such as “Things Need to Change!” and “Stop the Violence.” Many wore T-shirts painted with peace signs and the letters “DTV,” for “Don’t Tolerate Violence.”
When Farrah shouted, “Are you guys going to help us change the school?” cheers rumbled through the crowd. Then she asked, “How many of you guys have done something and someone else has done the same thing and they got less punishment than you?” Students whooped even louder.
Many of the protesters claim purported gangs are stirring up fear by starting fights and spray-painting gang symbols near the school.
“We need a day of peace, a day when everyone’s not worried about who’s tougher or who’s better or who’s richer,” seventh-grader Kayla Brown said.
Student perception about lax discipline at the 634-student school may stem from confidentiality rules that prevent teachers and administrators from detailing other students’ punishments, Miller said.
About half of Totem’s staff met after school last Friday to discuss changing discipline procedures.
“I think students recognize they can get a better education,” said Ty Reed, a math teacher and the school’s Associated Student Body adviser. “They just need the environment to get it. The constantly disruptive students have interfered.”
After the protest, Principal Judy Albertson agreed to meet for bi-weekly breakfasts with students to discuss violence and discipline, but Miller said little else may change as a result of the protest.
The students who participated in the rally will face punishment, she said.
Administrators haven’t decided what type of discipline the students’ action merits, but one popular idea involves asking the protestors to come in on a day when there is no school to talk about the issues. Those who don’t show up may face a one-day suspension, Miller said.
“I don’t condone any disruption to the educational process,” she said. “I think that there are other ways students can get their voices heard and have their issues addressed.”
While students rallied, a few parents lingered on the periphery, offering muted support.
Marysville School Board Member Darci Becker attended to back her daughter, Hannah, and also to gather feedback for the board. She asked students to give her suggestions on ways to improve the situation and said the protest may eventually lead to policy change.
Fighting and gang members who use cell phones and pagers to threaten kids are real issues in Marysville, she said.
“You get a group of kids together and decide they don’t like someone and they’ll gang up,” she said. “The entire I-5 corridor has issues with gangs. They’re constantly trying to recruit. In Marysville, we’re certainly not immune.”
The protest started to unravel around noon, when hungry bellies and reproaches from school staff drew a few kids inside for lunch.
Then Farrah found a bullhorn and told the protesters she thought administrators were taking their complaints seriously.
She’s not sure what will come of her first protest, but she’s optimistic.
“I feel like if things aren’t going to change, we’ll just do this again,” she said, before packing up her signs and heading inside.
Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.