Last week, nearly 150 North Park Junior High School students staged a peaceful class walkout to call on Lockport City School District to keep their beloved peer counselor, Ron Cheatham. Mr. Cheatham, who has worked with hundreds of Lockport students over many years, is seeking to switch to part-time so he does not lose his Social Security benefits.
After the protest, district superintendent Michelle Bradley told the Union-Sun & Journal, “As we do in education, we use these opportunities as teachable moments to help students learn and demonstrate and express feelings and emotions and their voices in appropriate ways in a school setting."
Superintendent Bradley is right. This is a “teachable moment,” but the people who need to learn from it are not the students at North Park. They are the adults running the school district. Because so far, what district officials are teaching our students is this: Make all the noise you want, we don’t really care.
Last month dozens of students and parents packed a meeting of the Board of Education to ask that Mr. Cheatham be kept on the job. That was also unusual for Lockport. Usually no one goes to these meetings. How did the board president deal with this outpouring of community concern? He made them wait through an hour-long, mind-numbing discussion about the district budget before allowing them to speak. When they were done, the board offered no reaction, no engagement. The trustees just scurried back behind closed doors, which is where the board always has its real discussions.
Young people in Lockport are smart. They know when they are being heard and they know when they are just being tolerated. It came as little surprise that board president John Linderman and Superintendent Bradley, without consulting with the rest of the board, ignored the community’s request. They called Mr. Cheatham over to Beattie Avenue and gave him 90 days to leave his job with the students who adore him.
This is no isolated incident. It is reflective of a school district culture that refuses to listen to the community. Last week the New York Times published a major article on the Lockport district’s now-famous spy cameras boondoggle. When the reporter was here she interviewed some students from the high school. One of the seniors told her, “They tell us that knowledge is power and then they keep us in the dark.” No one from the district has even bothered to explain the system and its dangers to our students. It has treated them as lab rats in a high-tech experiment. State law actually required the district to consult with parents and students before buying the system. The district lied, saying it had done so, but administrators still can’t name a single student or parent they actually spoke with.
It was interesting to see public reaction to news of the North Park student protest on local social media. Mostly that reaction was positive. People don’t understand why the district would let itself lose someone who does so much for so many children. Some parents expressed genuine pride at seeing their children speak out.
But others took a different view. “How about you teach your kids respect and how to work instead of cry and whine...and if I don't like something I will protest it when you’re not even smart enough to know why your protesting.”
Let’s be clear, these students know exactly why they are protesting. Junior high is a tough age. It is a time when young people struggle, and many get in trouble and have a hard time climbing back from it. Imagine, in the midst of that, having an adult our students trust, someone they can go to and speak with about hard things. Why on Earth would we just toss that away as if he could just be replaced with a snap of the finger? Our students know, better than the district administration, that having someone like that outweighs whatever technicalities the district wants to blame for losing him. When you have this much outpouring from the community, real leaders find a way to solve the problem. They don’t hide behind excuses and executive sessions.
There will always be foolish people who believe in apathy and silence, that our job is to just shut up and let the people in charge do what they want. The students at North Park and the others in our community who are making their voices heard know better. America was not built by the silent and the mute, but by people who see things that are wrong, speak up and take action. The students and parents speaking up now should continue to do so, for all of us, and the Lockport school district should do its job and actually listen to them for a change.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.