A group of local students took to the New Haven Green on Friday, protesting that a long-standing school transportation rule is infringing on their freedom to hang out downtown after school.
About a dozen students from the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School have expressed outrage at a recent, more-stringent enforcement of a long-standing school policy regarding after-school transportation. According to the policy, students must have a note from their parents on file in order to opt out of district-provided transportation and choose their way home. But about 200 students, who are demanding the freedom to choose what they do after school, have signed a petition arguing that the policy presents an undue burden and an infringement on their personal freedom.
On a corner of the Green on Friday afternoon, a few dozen loitered conspicuously, an uncommon blend of local high school students, parents, Yalies, concerned citizens and members of the press. From this mixed group, Sorini Perez, a Cooperative junior, emerged as an unlikely leader. With a mix of apprehension and determination, she hopped onto a bench and began to speak.
“As soon as the last bell rings, the school has no responsibility for us,” Perez projected onto the crowd, as school officials stood by and snapped photographs to document those present.
“They told us not to protest, saying that we’re wasting our time, that no one would hear us,” Perez said, scanning the crowd nervously. “If we can’t stand up for our rights, then why is there democracy?”
At the administrative level, the issue is not one of student rights but of student safety, New Haven Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Wade said.
“It’s really a commonsense policy,” Wade said, “so that we know and parents know what the transportation plan is for the student.”
Gabriel Hernandez ’07, who currently teaches history at the Cooperative High School, said this is not how the issue was framed to teachers. Instead, Hernandez claimed, teachers were told that due to complaints from local business owners, school officials would be heightening efforts to keep students out of the downtown area after school.
Hernandez also spoke at the event, invoking the First Amendment as a means to oppose this policy. He later referred to the school’s principal as a “shameless bureaucrat.”
“A public school exists as an extension of the United States of America, which has a Constitution which we cherish and respect,” Hernandez said in his speech. “It’s not about making noise. It’s about demanding that the rights of the students be respected.”
Only a small fraction of those who signed the petition turned out Friday to protest, a fact Hernandez attributed to fear of punishment. Students present claimed that Principal Dolores Garcia-Blocker warned the student body not to attend. Garcia-Blocker deferred requests for comments to Wade.
Parents of some students in attendance have been alerted that their children will be receiving disciplinary action, Hernandez said, though official disciplinary action will not be taken until Tuesday, when school resumes session after the Jewish holidays.
Even Perez, the most outspoken opponent of the policy, said the potential ramifications of the protest shook her resolve to attend.
“I was really nervous. I’ve never broken a law in my life,” Perez said. “I was nervous, but I was still going to do it.”
Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, whose ward encompasses the Green as well as the school, said she thinks the conflict rose out of confusion on the part of both students and administrators.
“They’re not rowdy students, they’re artists,” Clark said, adding that there have not been problems with the students in the past. “I wouldn’t jump to a lot of conclusions. Let’s try to find out what all the facts are so we can try to figure out how to deal with it.”
Wade said the school will not likely change the policy in response to the protest.