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Henderson students' protest gets them meeting with BPS superintendent

High school students at the Henderson Upper School on Friday staged a walkout in protest of conditions at the Croftland Street grades 4-12 school. (Seth Daniel/Dorchester Reporter)
High school students at the Henderson Upper School on Friday staged a walkout in protest of conditions at the Croftland Street grades 4-12 school. (Seth Daniel/Dorchester Reporter)

About 50 high school students from Dorchester’s Henderson Upper School walked out Friday morning, protesting what they said was poor usage of funding, unfair student suspensions and lackluster communication between students and teachers.

Students left school after second period, around 10:18 a.m., bearing signs and a megaphone. They gathered outside the school and then said they were headed to the Bruce Bolling Building, the Boston Public Schools headquarters in Roxbury, to directly voice their concerns to Supt. Mary Skipper.

Skipper met with the students, and in a statement afterwards, said they were "passionate" and "intelligent."

"We are committed to working with them to ensure their concerns are addressed and that they can take an active role in creating solutions," she said. "We recognize that increasing resources and strengthening school culture are very important to them, as they are to school and district leaders, and we are taking their concerns seriously. Moreover, their voices will help improve outcomes for their peers as we make positive changes together. We are actively working to identify ways to address these matters."

Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Mary Skipper makes a statement during a press conference announcing the addition of 20 new electric school buses to the Boston Public Schools’ fleet. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Mary Skipper makes a statement during a press conference announcing the addition of 20 new electric school buses to the Boston Public Schools’ fleet. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Skipper added that the BPS administrators will work with the students to build out the structure of their Boston Student Advisory Council "so they can continue to learn how to be effective student leaders."

Ahead of the walkout, students had a list of eight concerns that they said had not been addressed. They were also concerned with safety issues and teacher behaviors that they indicated rarely result in consequences or discipline.

“We’re walking out because we tried several times to talk to (the principal) — two times — and it went nowhere,” said Sandra Funches, a high school student who walked out. “So, now we’re going to the Bolling, and they said they would give us space to talk."

"First, we tried to talk about these things at an assembly and they drove us off the stage and laughed at us. They disregarded everything we had to say … We have nothing here. We have no computers. We have no paper. We have no books. We have no notebooks. We need more consideration, and our concerns need to be taken into consideration," Funches said.

One high school student at the walkout, who didn’t want to be identified by name for fear of retaliation, said while they don’t have computers or basic supplies, the principal, Stephanie Sibley, had spent “a ton of money” on Yonder cases, which are pouches that lock up student phones during school hours. Yonder cases are used in some schools, but not all schools, around Boston.

“We have no resources, but we have Yonder cases,” she said, adding students can get in trouble or suspended if the cases are damaged or lost.

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Funches said there are too many suspensions for minor things, but serious things don’t result in suspensions.

“She doesn’t suspend anyone for fighting or smoking,” she said.

Another student indicated a serious incident had occurred recently where allegedly a young girl was assaulted in a bathroom by an older boy. They said that boy is coming back to school next week, and they’ve heard no mention of discipline.

The same, they said, is true of racial incidents, including one recently where a white student allegedly called Black students racial slurs and referred to them as “animals.”
“The principal was notified and never asked us about it,” said Funches. “That student is still here walking around like nothing happened.”

Students began quietly planning the walkout in a text chat Thursday night and had hoped to keep it quiet. “Please spread the word as much as you can but remember to keep it as discreet as possible,” read the chat. “Do not tell others who you think might be against the idea. Remember that the more people that join, the less likely you will be to receive consequences for the walkout.”

Before Friday’s walkout, Henderson Upper School officials sent a letter to parents seeking to address the protest and noting they would have BPS headquarters staff available on-site to talk about issues – including the system’s chief of staff Rochelle Nwosu. They also planned to have a school assembly on Feb. 15 to offer students a chance to have their voices heard.

“Regular attendance plays a critical role in our students’ academic success,” read the school letter. “We discourage our students from missing class time as this can impact the essential continuum of learning. We strongly believe in the importance of student voice, advocacy, and their power to change important issues. Valuable learning can occur through participation in civic activities.”

As students were walking out on Friday morning, numerous school leadership and staff were positioned at the doors and around the school. A school safety officer and a Boston police officer were also stationed outside the front door.

The full list of concerns displayed by students included: More resources in classrooms; bring in restorative justice; more open mental health programs; better teacher and student communication; trust and respect between students and teachers; have an opinion in changes at the school; better usage of funds; and respect between all students and teachers.

This story was originally published by the Dorchester Reporter. WBUR and the Dorchester Reporter have a partnership in which the news organizations share resources to collaborate on stories.

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