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.
That evening, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson told the board that she was reassigning Markham-Cousins.
Facebook wasn’t everything
But Facebook and three days of protest weren’t the only agents of change. Some parents have been working back channels for several years to press their concerns about Markham-Cousins, a veteran educator known for her dedication to disadvantaged students. They have lobbied board members to increase academic rigor at the school. Earlier this year, they got the ear of key board members and a session with Johnson that resulted in a directive that the school will add several selective, more rigorous courses.
Although the protests sped the ouster of Markham-Cousins, backers of Dan Pratt appear to have lost the battle to keep him as athletic director. He reportedly was told last week he’s being reassigned to full-time duties as a physical education teacher next year in the wake of questions over whether he followed proper procedures in trying to replace the school’s stadium scoreboard. An investigation continues but no discipline has been imposed, the district said.
Meanwhile, Simpson waits to see if a threat to strip him of National Honor Society membership for the protest actually materializes. He’s headed for Macalester College in St. Paul, where he says he’ll put math and science ahead of Division 3 soccer. Whiting heads to University of Northern Iowa with a track and football scholarship, to study political science and law.
Washburn students will finish out the year with an interim principal, Craig Vana, and some bruised feelings.
Students active in the arts protested this week that their voices hadn’t been heard in replacing a principal who invigorated theater, music and other arts programs.
“So many people were excited after Thursday and a lot of people were very sad. There was that huge difference,” Simpson said.