Minneapolis Washburn students use Facebook for change

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2013 - 7:38 AM

Social media-savvy students sought to protect an athletic director but wound up ushering out principal.

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Jamison Whiting, left, and Ben Simpson, both popular athletes at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, mounted a Facebook campaign to keep athletic director Dan Pratt from being fired. After three days of protests, their efforts led to Principal Carol Markham-Cousins being reassigned instead.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • brianp@startribune.com ,

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Some are calling it the “Washburn Spring.”

Dissident Minneapolis students using Facebook whipped up popular protests that led to a high school version of regime change, the ouster of Principal Carol Markham-Cousins.

“Just like the Arab Spring, it was youth that started it all through social media,” said Jamison Whiting.

Whiting is a star athlete at Washburn and creator of a Facebook page aimed at blocking the ouster of school athletic director Dan Pratt. That led to three days of protests, including a walkout and a sit-in.

Without Facebook, “it would have been way, way harder,” said soccer captain Ben Simpson, another protest leader.

A year ago, while visiting Egypt, Simpson met students who used social media crucial to that nation’s regime-changing protests. “I had that in mind,” he said.

Keeping in touch electronically was key to the students’ efforts. Word that Pratt’s role as athletic director was in jeopardy spread shortly before spring break scattered students.

“People were like, ‘We shouldn’t let them do that,’ ” Simpson recalled, and ideas began flying.

Whiting created a Facebook page and invited 250 friends at first, and hundreds of their friends soon joined. Alumni, parents and former Washburn teachers flocked to the page. On Aptil 8, their first day back from break, 190 students walked out at midday, roughly one-fifth of the student body. It brought the cause visibility.

Then things escalated because of a protest that never happened. On April 9, Whiting was one of a parade of Pratt supporters speaking at a school board meeting. He told the board that Markham-Cousins and other school administrators intimidated him into scrubbing a five-minute in-school protest that day. He said Markham-Cousins told him that he couldn’t leave an administrator’s office until he agreed to drop the protest, which he eventually did. That set off boos from Pratt supporters at the meeting.

But they didn’t know the half of it. Whiting said in an interview that during his confinement he’d gotten a text message from his mother. She pleaded with him not to do anything to jeopardize his graduation and the athletic scholarship the family was depending on for him to attend college.

Anna Whiting, a teacher at the district’s Northrop elementary school, said in an interview that a Washburn administrator contacted her and said there would be “severe consequences” for her son if the protest proceeded. “To me, it seemed like a little bit of a threat,” she said, and worried he might be expelled.

The accusation of threats inflamed the issue.

“Doing it to Jamison was probably the worst person to choose,” Simpson said, noting Whiting’s status as a star athlete. Whiting more typically uses Facebook for such purposes as encouraging students to turn out for the girls basketball team in the state tournament.

Simpson took the lead by posting plans on Facebook for a sit-in at 12:30 p.m. the next day. Postings drew not only students, but also alumni and other Pratt supporters, widening the circle of protest.

“My phone was vibrating all night,” he said. “The Facebook page was the only reason it happened.”

Simpson expected maybe 40 to 50 students for the hallway sit-in. Instead, it was hard to find a spot to sit. “There were tons and tons and tons of kids there,” he said. He e-mailed his mom a panoramic photo taken with a phone; she sent it to the Star Tribune.

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  • Students poured out of Washburn High School April 8 in support of athletic director Dan Pratt. They gathered on the synthetic turf field that Pratt and others raised money to buy and install. “We’ve got quite a group of kids,” said Jamison Whiting, a senior four-sport athlete.

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