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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Lunch rule sparks activism
Upset students at Hudson High learn the art of diplomacy.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2007
Hudson High students (left to right) Addison Fischer, Cyndi Bachelder, Paul MacLellan, Chris Syracuse, Zachary James and Diana Kirchner planned to protest the move to close the school commons, where they're sitting, during lunch time. Instead, they ended up meeting with the principal, who agreed to seek more student input while making decisions that impact them.
[Times photo: Jeff Solochek]
HUDSON - For as far back as anyone can remember, kids could eat lunch in the commons area adjacent to the Hudson High cafeteria.
Until this year.
And the kids are not all right with that.
Some wanted to protest. Some wanted to fight. They didn't look to student government, which had grown moribund in the advocacy department, to get anything done.
So one group planned a sit-in. Another planned to make voices heard through a documentary film. A third created an ad hoc Hudson High Rights Committee on the pointedly named MySpace page "hudsonhighsucks," which had more than 150 friends - that's about 10 percent of the student body - within a week.
Things could have gotten ugly.
Instead, the principal and some of the student organizers sat down together for a 90-minute session where they talked - not argued or demanded - and they listened. Before long, the student body found itself with a new voice in campus decisions that previously seemed to come down from on high.
"We are going to use this as a way to get kids to think about ways we can do things on campus and take ownership," principal David LaRoche said.
* * *
It was LaRoche who decided, with the help of what he calls his "leadership team," to close the commons at lunch time. The rationale seemed simple enough: Supervising kids and guaranteeing their safety when they roamed more freely posed problems.
The kids didn't see it that way. To them, it meant constraints on one of their few free moments in an otherwise structured day.
"You're sitting all day in school," senior Addison Fischer explained. "During lunch, it's cool to get up and socialize with your friends."
That LaRoche had expanded the outdoor patio and added covered seating didn't impress.
"Not everybody wants to go to the patio," senior Paul MacLellan said. "It's hot out there."
Fischer and some friends wanted to protest. MacLellan started the MySpace page. Senior Zachary James planned to film students' concerns on this and other school changes.
None had ever been really involved in clubs or other activities. None belonged to student government, which they had come to see as a fundraising organization more than a place for serious discussion. They just knew they were unhappy and wanted some action.
Then along came Sandy Mullins.
* * *
Mullins is a third-year teacher who came to the job after years as what she calls a "political activist." She rallied for the Equal Rights Amendment and against the Vietnam War. She worked grass roots for George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid. Her classroom, filled with buttons, posters, letters and news clippings, is as much a remembrance of her past as a living lesson to her students.
Who include MacLellan, Fischer and James.
"They decided they were upset with some of the changes," the U.S. government teacher recalled. "I told them they had to ask themselves a question. Did they simply want to demonstrate? Or did they want some change? I told them they didn't know who they were fighting or why they were fighting. So they needed to have a meeting with Dr. LaRoche."
And in that meeting, she said, the teens had to avoid depicting themselves as victims. They had to come with questions and answers, not demands. And they had to listen.
"That's probably the most important thing I told them to do," Mullins said.
* * *
The students didn't expect LaRoche to welcome them. They had heard though they couldn't confirm that the first-year principal had rejected a meeting with others.
But they wanted to try.
"At first I was angry with the school. That's why at first (the Web site) was anti the school," MacLellan said. "Then I decided we want to do it right. We want to talk to the administration."
They used the site to call off the sit-in, which still attracted about 60 kids regardless.
Then they sat down to compile their thoughts.
It was a given that they didn't like the commons being closed off. But what else? Well, they wanted the lunch line returned to the junior-senior lounge. They wanted to have passing periods between classes restored to five minutes instead of four. They wanted more information about, and more access to, student clubs.
In a nutshell, they wanted to improve their school, where they spend most of their day.
"Seeing as it's my senior year, I want to have the best time possible, and leave the school better," MacLellan said.
Added James, "When a senior leaves, they go, 'How many people are going to remember me?' Last year, I was more of the observer. It's my senior year. I've only got one year left. I want to do as much as possible."
* * *
LaRoche knew something was brewing: He had seen the MySpace page. An alert parent tipped him off.
So when the kids asked to sit down rather than sit in, he welcomed the opportunity. And he came to recognize during their 90-minute discussion that not only did they have some good ideas, they also had a good point, that student government had lost some of its oomph.
"The meeting was about students wanting to have a voice," LaRoche said. "I really do think this is an opportunity for us to utilize the vehicle of SGA."
He didn't back down on the commons closure. Once kids hear the reasons behind it, he said, they understand even if they don't like it.
But he did allow that there's room for discussion on things like the amount of time to get from one class to the next.
"There are really things they see in this school that they would like us to look into. They are things we probably ought to look into," LaRoche said. "And we will."
* * *
The students were thrilled with the results. Never did they expect that an angry moment would transform into potential influence.
"I think not only we were surprised, but he was surprised at the information we collected," James said.
Now, they're energized to keep at it.
"It's only the first week, and we're having a pretty good start at getting to help," MacLellan said.
One person who wasn't shocked at the turn of events was Mullins, the government teacher.
"I know they're setting an example for the other students. They can hand off the example and create a legacy of more students having a voice," she said. "I'm really impressed with these kids."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.