Photo by student Ben Simpson of Washburn sit-in

Photo by student Ben Simpson of Washburn sit-in

This week’s protests at Washburn High School morphed Wednesday from support of an athletic director to a challenge to the school administration and backing for a star athlete.

Student shortly after noon conducted a large-scale hallway sit-in near the school’s main office and entrance. One organizer, senior Ben Simpson, estimated that one-quarter of the school’s enrollment of 1,195 students took part in the sit-in. Many left for afternoon classes, but students said at least 50 students remained until the 3 p.m dismissal.

The week began with a show of student support via a walkout organized by senior Jamison Whiting, a star athlete, in support of Dan Pratt, the school’s athletic director. The district said he is being investigated for a “private personnel matter,” but that he has not been disciplined. That’s about all the district is permitted to say at this stage under the state data practices law.

Whiting then went before the school board Tuesday night to say that school administrators used intimidating tactics to force him to drop a plan for a short in-school standing protest earlier that day. He said he was told he couldn’t leave an administrator’s office unless he dropped that plan. Others appeared at the board meeting to support Pratt or criticize Markham-Cousins. who is in her sixth year at Washburn..

Students met after the board meeting to plan Wednesday’s sit-in, prompted in part by anger at what they see as strong-arm tactics by Principal Carol Markham-Cousins aimed at Whiting.

Simpson. a soccer team captain, said the protest has taken on larger goals than saving Pratt’s job. He said that Markham-Cousins has lost the confidence of students and said that a number of teachers have confided their support for the stance by students. He said that staff was accommodating of Wednesday’s protest, despite being required to give participating students unexcused absences that kept them from after-school activities.

Markham-Cousins, who has steadfastly refused to comment on the issues, was away from the school for the day for previously planned meetings. The school took no action against the protest, other than to announce that students faced consequences if they posted photos of it on social media sites.

“We aren’t going to let our principal or anyone else take away our First Amendment rights,” Simpson said by phone from the protest. “We just can’t let this slide — threatening a student. Are we 10-year-olds again?”

“We’re just not in support of our principal. As a principal, if you don’t have the support of your student body,” that’s a bad sign, he said.

Two students interviewed after school, Heather Markun-Heard and Victoria Turcios, agreed that Pratt’s character is such that if he’d done something wrong, he’d own up to it. Both noted a contradiction between public support by Markham-Cousins for student protest rights on Monday and the actions Whiting described to cub his Tuesday protest.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib