WASHINGTON -- Boisterous students protested outside McKinley Tech High School in northeast Washington Monday in response to a wave of D.C. Public Schools teacher layoffs.
Last week, more than 200 teachers were told their jobs had been eliminated, then escorted out of school buildings by police. The cuts are necessary due to declining enrollment and a $44 million budget deficit, school officials said.
"He (a police officer) didn't even allow me to get my lunch," said Sheila Gill, who has worked in D.C. Public Schools for 32 years and says her record is spotless. "He didn't allow me to get my personal items. He escorted me out of the building and told me I had to get off the parking lot immediately."
Upon learning about those cuts, students and parents held an informal protest outside McKinley Tech on Friday. After the situation escalated, police were called and arrested two people.
"It's our intention never to arrest anyone that's engaged in a protest," said D.C. police Capt. Jeff Herold. "What happened on Friday, it was an activist, and from the information that I have, the person wanted to get arrested."
Students gathered outside the school Monday for a formal protest, complete with signs and chants, including "Rhee is fired" and "Education, not termination."
"We organized this because we believe that the chancellor was unfair," said Brittany Timmons, McKinley's student vice president, who spread the word to wear black and plan to march.
The Washington Teacher blog also encouraged people to wear black to show support for those teachers affected by the cuts.
One student told NBC4 that she has been moved from her French III class to Spanish I because her French teacher was let go, but the school system denied that students are being placed in different subjects because of the layoffs and stressed that 60 percent of schools will lose one or no teachers and 80 percent of schools will lose two or fewer. The only change in students' class schedules resulting from the layoffs should be the time of day classes are offered.
One principal reportedly told teachers that all students who lost a teacher shouldn't receive grades lower than a "C," and the school system denied that as well, calling it a rumor.
The protesters marched to school headquarters, then the Wilson building, where they spoke with several members of the D.C. Council.
The most vocal council member, NBC4 reported, was Mayor for Life Marion Barry, who told students that Chancellor Michelle Rhee lied to them about the situation.
"We see our teachers walking out the door, we don't think it's fair," Timmons said. "We're uneased about it. We want our counselors back, the class of 2010 does, and we're going to protest until we get them back."
Rhonda Robinson, one of the counselors who was cut, said she doesn't believe a smaller workforce is the chancellor's goal.
"Today I found out from one of my very good friends that D.C. Public Schools is still hiring," she said. "She just finished the fingerprinting process, so that she could be hired."
"This whole situation has been highly illegal," McKinley senior Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini told NBC4. "The chancellor has been given power that the council members did not have the right to give her. This reduction of force was given without due process of law by any of the citizens here."
School officials are doing "everything possible to provide support for our schools, to minimize any disruption and to ensure schools can focus on serving students," Rhee said in a press release.
Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. promised the protesters' voices would be heard.
"I know the chairman is holding an oversight hearing and responsibility hearing," he said. "I think process takes a long time."
Police said their presence Monday was to protect protesters and the public.The teachers who were forced to leave have been placed on administrative leave and will be given one month of severance pay.