Another protest demonstration erupted at Oak Park and River Forest High School on March 4 — the third demonstration in roughly a week. This time, students and community members are speaking out against the reported suspension of two popular OPRF employees.
According to reports that have been circulated by students, OPRF parents and community members, but unconfirmed by district officials, special education teacher Anthony Clark and Shoneice Reynolds, an administrative assistant at the school, have been placed on administrative leave for their parts in helping students organize a walkout that took place on Feb. 26.
When reached for comment on Feb. 4 confirming his leave of absence, Clark simply offered up a quote by Martin Luther King: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
In a statement sent to OPRF community members on March 3, District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams explained that district officials were aware “that some students are planning another walkout during the school day tomorrow. We understand that they are frustrated and angry, and we are committed to partnering with them to hear and address their concerns.”
Pruitt-Adams added that she and Principal Nate Rouse planned to reach out to students on March 4, asking for a meeting to discuss some of their concerns, but that students “should understand, however, that we cannot and will not discuss any specifics related to personnel matters.”
Antoine Ford, the student who was the lead organizer of the Feb. 26 walkout, said during an interview at around 8 a.m. on Monday that he and some other students were planning to stage a peaceful sit-in starting second period. As he talked, a crowd of roughly 10 community members stood shivering outside of the main entrance in support of the student activists.
By the end of the school day, a few dozen students could still be seen on a student leader’s Facebook livestream sitting on the floor of the common area near the school’s main entrance, some confronting Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams in the roughly 11-minute video clip.
“Mr. Clark is not just a teacher,” Ford said. “Mr. Clark is a mentor. He comes through for everybody. He does work outside of this building and in the community. For y’all to put him on leave … That’s not right.”
Other students said that Clark and Reynolds are the only “trusted adults” they believe they have at OPRF.
Jocelyn Meraz, a sophomore at OPRF who helped plan Monday’s sit-in, said during an interview that morning that students would not move until the superintendent announces that Clark and Reynolds are reinstated “effective immediately.” The students also wanted Pruitt-Adams to sign a document guaranteeing the teachers’ reinstatement.
“If she doesn’t sign this, then the sit-in will last longer and escalate,” Ford said. “It’s annoying that when we have good teachers they try to get rid of them.”
Meraz said that district officials “are so quick to suspend our black teachers,” but when white teachers engage in racist acts “they’re not as quick to suspend them.”
Ford and other students have indicated that Clark and Reynolds may have been placed on leave due to their parts in allegedly helping to plan the Feb. 28 march that was designed to commemorate the death of Trayvon Martin and other African American people who have died by police violence.
Ford said that he got the idea for the march after Julian Principal Todd Fitzgerald did not allow him the opportunity to stage a 3-minute reenactment of Martin’s shooting death. During the Feb. 28 demonstration — which involved OPRF students walking out of school at 10 a.m. before meeting up with Julian students and heading to the police station — Fitzgerald explained his decision to Ford and other students.
“I didn’t feel comfortable having a reenactment of a young boy being murdered here in our school, in a middle school,” Fitzgerald said. “In sharing that with the social justice club, we then had some conversations over some other options.”
In an interview the Sunday before the walkout, Ford said that he had originally intended for the walkout demonstration to be kept secret from administration officials and police, adding that he didn’t want the protest against the racism he feels is rampant in the schools and police department co-opted by those authorities.
Although administration officials have not commented directly on Clark and Reynolds, Supt. Pruitt-Adams told students on Monday that there is an ongoing investigation.
“No one has been charged with anything,” Pruitt-Adams says in one of the Facebook videos. “It is strictly an investigation.”
The superintendent said that the administration is “committed to bringing this to a resolution as soon as we possibly can” and that she’ll update students on Wednesday.
That investigation is likely designed to explore the extent of Clark’s and Reynolds’ participation in the planning of the walkout, which both employees attended. Ford said on Monday morning that he had no help from either teacher.
Meanwhile, some community members created a change.org petition on March 3 demanding that the D200 school board “immediately reinstate the teacher and staff member who were suspended after Tuesday’s student-led walkout.”
The petition chastises the administration’s “response of control, contain and punish,” adding that “teachers and mentors engaged in this profoundly important work should be lifted up, not made into scapegoats for institutions afraid to show true leadership” and that the “suspensions will have a devastating chilling effect on teachers’ efforts to address racial equity issues and must be resolved immediately.” As of Monday evening, the petition had garnered 139 out of its goal of 200 signatures.
The district had planned to hold a town hall on racial equity and school safety on Thursday, March 7, 6:30 p.m., in the south cafeteria at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville Ave. That meeting has since been postponed.