Suspensions at Norwich Tech rescinded but prompt protest

Students at Norwich Technical High School sat in the school's lobby for two hours Thursday, March 15, 2018, in response to the temporary suspension of six of their classmates who were punished for participating in a 17-minute walkout from school Wednesday, March 14, 2018, as part of a nationwide, student-led protest against gun violence. (Courtesy of Daisey Palmisano)
Students at Norwich Technical High School sat in the school's lobby for two hours Thursday, March 15, 2018, in response to the temporary suspension of six of their classmates who were punished for participating in a 17-minute walkout from school Wednesday, March 14, 2018, as part of a nationwide, student-led protest against gun violence. (Courtesy of Daisey Palmisano)

Norwich — An initial decision by Norwich Technical High School administrators to suspend six students for walking out Wednesday during the planned “walk-in” demonstration against school violence sparked a barrage of criticism and protests of the school on social media and a reversal of the disciplinary action Thursday.

“They called us this morning and they apologized," Norwich Tech senior Daisey Palmisano, 17, told The Day on Thursday morning, after the suspensions were rescinded.

News of the suspensions triggered another protest by students at the school. About 50 students Thursday morning left class to gather in the lobby at Norwich Tech holding handwritten signs with messages such as “Our voices WILL be heard.”

The students sat silently for about two hours facing the school’s administrative offices, waiting for officials to come out and speak to them about Wednesday’s walkout and suspensions, Palmisano said. She said after two hours, administrators came out to discuss students’ concerns.

A person in the Norwich Tech main office referred calls about the suspensions and controversy to Assistant Principal Michael Kaiser, who did not return several phone calls Thursday. Principal Nikitoula Menounos did not respond to an email seeking comment on the suspensions.

Peter Yazbak, spokesman for the state technical high school system, said no students at Norwich Tech will be suspended for their actions during Wednesday’s event, one of several held at schools across the nation. Yazbak said school administrators in advance of the in-school event informed students they were not to leave the school campus during the demonstration for safety concerns.

“Some students decided to leave campus anyway, and the school followed normal procedures and issued suspensions,” Yazbak said. “The principal of the school decided that because of the unique circumstances of the national walkout, and out of respect for students’ right to participate in freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, they rescinded the suspensions.”

The furor erupted Wednesday afternoon, when some of the suspended students took to social media, posting comments that they had been suspended for deciding to walk out of school rather than participate in the school assembly and an activity to post notes of “17 acts of kindness” on a giant bulletin board. The board was covered with different colored Post-It notes by the end of the school day.

Student Madison Webb told The Day on Wednesday night via Twitter that she and five other students walked out after she had a long conversation with Assistant Principal Kaiser expressing that she felt that posting notes was inadequate. Webb said the students gathered at the school flagpole for 17 minutes during their walkout. She wrote that Kaiser warned the students they would be suspended if they walked out.

“Afterward we came in, we were told we were being suspended for tomorrow (Thursday) and not to come into school,” Webb wrote in a message on Twitter. “They gave us no documentation of this and none of our parents were called."

Yazbak said the state central office for technical high schools and Interim Superintendent Jeffrey Wihbey were not involved in either the suspensions or the decision to rescind them. The state’s technical high schools were given guidelines by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents on participation in the national walkout on Wednesday, but allowed each school to decide on its own participation, Yazbak said.

Menounos sent a letter to parents March 9 describing plans for the March 14 demonstration and that students would be asked to stay inside the building for safety reasons.

Palmisano said she and others felt the walk-in was an insufficient demonstration for improved school safety and against school violence.

“We thought that the walk-in just wasn't doing enough," Palmisano said. She said posting notes describing personal acts of kindness was “blaming the victims for not being kinder to the shooter."

The students’ social media posts went viral, generating comments of support from throughout the country and at least one from Canada. Some commenters supported the school’s initial decision to suspend the students, noting that they were told not to leave the school during the demonstration. Commenters urged people to call the school to express their objections to the suspensions. Some who said they posted protest comments claimed Norwich Tech deleted their posts and blocked them from posting to the school's Twitter page. The school's Twitter page Thursday showed only a few photos and comments on the in-school program Wednesday.

Palmisano said the in-school demonstration took longer than a 17-minute walkout would have taken and it would have been easier for the school to allow the students to walk out.

“Right down the road at (Norwich Free Academy), their whole entire school was outside, so we didn't understand,” Palmisano said.

c.bessette@theday.com

m.shanahan@theday.com

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