“Eighteen veterans are going to kill themselves today – and tomorrow, and the next day,” announced Santa Barbara High student Geoffrey Parker to an audience of roughly fifty students sitting in the hallway last Thursday. This fact was one of many that he had learned from Veterans for Peace, a local organization that was planned to hold an assembly at SBHS last week. The “SBHS Sit-In Protest for the Freedom of Knowledge,” as the group referred to itself on Facebook, sought to call attention to the administration’s recent decision to cancel the assembly. As fellow student organizer Lyndsey Harrington explained, “This is a protest for our voices to be heard, not just for the assembly to be held.”
According to student organizers, an application was submitted and approved to hold the assembly over a month ago. However, Assistant Principal David Hodges and Principal Mark Capritto reported that they were not informed of the assembly until the beginning of last week. Two days before the assembly was due, organizers were informed that the assembly was cancelled. Hodges explained that when Veterans for Peace gave a similar assembly last year, he received complaints from parents about the assembly’s content, some of whom felt it was “too biased.”
The assembly would have included a video about Arlington West and feature two speakers, an Iraqi war veteran and a mother whose son died as a soldier in Iraq. The date was particularly memorable because it marked the anniversary of her son’s death. Harrington told The Forge SBHS’s student newspaper, “When this mother came last year, it was a really moving experience for everyone in the theater: You could feel the atmosphere change when the students walked out.” Participant Maya Irvine noted the importance of having two primary sources for students to learn from, asking, “Where else are we going to get this information from? We can’t get it from school; we can’t get it from the news.”
Capritto explained that another reason for the cancellation was because of timing. He reported that teachers from various departments complained that other recent assemblies and events had infringed upon their class time and that they did not want to sacrifice more time with finals approaching. Both Capritto and Hodges proposed holding the assembly at lunch or after school, but did not have enough time to reschedule. However, this was not enough for student organizers. Parker told The Forge, “Not only could the Veterans for Peace not come at lunch because of scheduling, but because there is no food allowed in the theatre, you’re basically asking students to decide between food and knowledge.” He continued to explain that the point of having an assembly during class time was “so that students that are already passionate about this subject aren’t the only ones [who] benefit from it,” although the assembly itself would be optional.
Meanwhile, passing period arrived and students swarmed the main hall, pushing the small but adamant group of protesters against the walls. Students clapped and chanted “We want a voice / Give us a choice,” while holding signs reading “Who really runs this school?” “Peace is nonpartisan” and “Where can we learn if not here?” When the halls cleared, nearly eighty students remained who engaged in discussion about student representation in our school. Several petitions asking the assembly to be reinstated circulated the school in the days prior, garnering around 600 signatures from students and staff. Upon presentation of the petitions, organizers were thanked for “exercising their democratic rights.” Participant Anna Campanelli commented, “I feel disrespected for all the effort that went into this.”
When the protest ended two hours later, student organizers met with Capritto to discuss the impact of the sit-in and their options for the future. Capritto will be meeting with them in coming weeks to plan holding the assembly sometime in the next school year.