SCOTT ROSTS/Niagara This Week
They marched with signs reading “We should not have to be puppets” and “put students first.”
Hundreds of students at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School joined thousands of their peers at District School Board of Niagara secondary schools in a protest Monday. Their message was they didn’t want to be caught in the “crossfire” in a labour dispute between teachers and the government. Extra-curricular activities and study help for students have effectively come to a halt Monday after members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation District 22 recently rejected a tentative agreement negotiated between the union and the District School Board of Niagara.
“We don’t think we should be caught in the crossfire,” said Kimberly Hatcher, a Grade 12 student. “We’re not for or against Bill 115, but we want people to know that we’re not just going to take this sitting down.”
Bill 115, passed in September, allows the provincial government to set rules that local school boards must adhere to when negotiating with local unions, and allows the government to impose a collective agreement on the board, employee bargaining agent and the employees of the board represented by the employee bargaining agent if negotiations are not completed by December 31, 2012.
Scholarships at the school, said some students, are in jeopardy.
“I don’t want to be ineligible because I can’t write down all the things I’m involved in,” said Emily Anderson, a Grade 12 student involved in student council prefects and Arts Club. “If some students aren’t able to compete at OFSAA it may have a major impact on their scholarships.”
While classes are on as usual, any outside help has ended. Hatcher said that teachers have minimal time before and after school and are using it as prep time.
“With exams coming up, this is a huge issue,” Anderson said. “I want to be fully ready for my exams, and students may need that additional help.”
Natasha Panter said it’s extra integral for Grade 12 students, who are relying on those grades to help bolster admissions into the post-secondary programs of their choice.
“It’s your final year and you want to get involved, and you want to do well,” Panter said.
At West Park, it’s also the unique circumstances that it’s the final year for the school as a whole. The school will shut its doors as West Park at the end of the school year, along with Kernahan Park, thanks to a decision by DSBN trustees earlier this year.
“West Park kids, everything has been taken away from them this year. It’s our last year,” said Justine Hamilton-Arvisais. “We’re very big on sports and taking that away on the last year our school is open is a slap in our face.”
The music department held one Christmas concert last week, but Brittany Burrows said the second one — “the biggest one” — is now in jeopardy.
“It’s the last year we’ll have one. It’s such a big part of our school and to not have one will be sad,” said Burrows.
“There’s no support for students anymore — we can’t even get help after school,” said Brandon Harrison.
The students at West Park started to plan the action Thursday, through word of mouth and social media. That led to a large group walking out at 8:30 a.m. on Monday. The students weren’t sure how the administration would deal with the protest, of if there would be any type of retribution, but felt they needed to have a voice.
“There is nothing else we can do,” said Hamilton-Arvisais. “This is where we have to go, whatever the consequences might be.”
The protests weren’t just limited to secondary schools. Oakridge Public School Grade 7 and 8 students also staged their own, refusing to go in school at the start of the day. Niagara this Week was asked to leave the premises during the protest, not allowing students to speak to the media or to be photographed on school property, but several students had emailed in advance asking for coverage so their voices could be heard.
“We feel as though we are being neglected in the process of their strike activity,” wrote one student, fearing that a strike could eliminate a Grade 8 graduation ceremony if the labour unrest continues until June. “Is that fair to us, as a student body? We definitely do not think so.”
Another student wrote that they truly wanted to make a “substantial difference” and share their voice – even if it was a smaller display than the local high schools.
“Because we are younger than the high school students, it shows that we can make a difference, too, with even less kids doing it,” she wrote.
A participating student at Oakridge told This Week that protestors stayed outside until about 1:30 p.m., when a superintendent showed up and told students to either go back inside or go home.
Brett Sweeney, the District School Board of Niagara’s acting manager of communications and public relations, said Monday afternoon the board has no formal statement on the students’ action on Monday morning
“We don’t have a position on the politics of what the students are doing,” he said, adding the board simply wanted to ensure any action was conducted in a “safe, responsible fashion.”
As for any possible retribution against students who participated, Sweeney said there will likely be no punitive punishment.
“It is a normal school day so students missing class would be marked absent, but the board is not going to be punitive in this case. We understand the students feel strongly about what is going on, and we support the students’ right to have their voices heard.”