EHS students take demonstration to City Hall and school board members

By Rozella Hardin and Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
rhardin@starhq.com, twilson@starhq.com

   About 200 Elizabethton High School students conducted their own civics class Wednesday morning as they peacefully demonstrated in front of City Hall in protest of the suspension Monday of Principal Ed Alexander.
   The students, who refused to go to class Tuesday morning, continued their protest later in the day and regrouped early Wednesday morning. Riding in pick-up trucks and waving American flags, the students first went to the City School Administration offices for a peaceful demonstration, and then continued through downtown to City Hall and the nearby office of City School Board member, Dr. Robert Sams.
   The students, who were joined by some parents, carried signs voicing their support for Alexander. Their chants of "We Want Ed" could be heard throughout the downtown. Motorists as they passed by City Hall honked their car horns in support of the students.
   One parent who joined the students was Sherry Sheets, an employee of City Hall. Her son, Eric, is a senior at EHS. "Mr. Ed has always been for the kids. He's a wonderful person and a great educator, and we want him back," said Sheets.
   Ashley Greene, a junior at the high school, who was among the demonstrators, said the students went to the central office when they heard there might be a board meeting this morning. "We just want to get our message out to the community. We want the community to get involved. Mr. Alexander knows all the kids, and he cares about us. And, we care about him," she said.
   Nikki Crowe, another student, said, "We want everyone to know what a good principal he was."
   Greene said Dr. Sams came out and briefly addressed the group. "He told us we needed to let everything calm down, and that he really didn't know what was going on. That was about it," she said.
   The students, who demonstrated for about 30 minutes in front of City Hall, were urged by Richard Barker, local businessman, to go back to school and class. Barker, whose sister is married to Joe Alexander, a brother of the EHS principal, told the students that Alexander would want the students to attend class, and "that is the best way you can help him." However, students replied "If that's what Ed wants, let Ed tell us that."
   The students left City Hall, stopping at Dr. Jonathan Bremer's office on Lawson Ave. "We intend to go to every school board member's office or home. We want them to know how we feel," said Greene.
   School board member Bob Berry said Wednesday he supported the students right to protest but did express some fears for the safety of students protesting along Bemberg Avenue.
   "I drove by and saw a lot kids hanging out of car windows and near the street and it did worry me," he said.
   Berry had been involved in a complaint process related to the case last year. He had contacted school board attorney Patrick Hull regarding Hyder's grievance and had suggested that all parties sit down and try to resolve the issue without resorting to formal proceedings.
   Alexander filed a complaint against Blevins after receiving a telephone call from Hull. The principal characterized the call as a a "strong-arm tactic" in his grievance against Blevins.
   "I guess I'm just from the old school where you sit down and try to work things out before you take it to the next step," said Berry. He also said the school board needed to adopt a more proactive stance in dealing with issues before they escalated.
   The students protesting Wednesday were also circulating a petition in support of Alexander.
   Protests continued along sidewalks outside the high school on Sunday afternoon. Students were united in the determination of the length of their protest.
   "Until Mr. Ed comes back," said Andrea Pisano, a junior. Pisano and several other students who spoke with the Star were adamant that they would continue their protest until Alexander was reinstated as principal.
   Students also collected signatures to petitions from passing motorists who honked horns in support of students along Bemberg Avenue late Wednesday morning.
   "This is their school, and they deserve to know what is going on," said Tammy Ward, whose daughter is a sophomore at EHS.
   Students also continued to express their dissatisfaction with the reasons for Alexander's suspension given by director of schools, Dr. Judy Blevins.
   Seniors Donnie Paul and Andy Slagle said a large group of EHS seniors had spoken of not attending senior graduation on May 26 if Alexander was not included in the ceremony.
   "I feel we are doing the right thing," said Slagle. "I will not accept the diploma or walk across that stage. They are going to have to mail me my diploma."
   Several students who spoke with the Star on Tuesday said Blevins intimated to seniors on Tuesday that graduation might be at risk if they continued to protest on Alexander's behalf. Blevins flatly denied making that comment on Wednesday afternoon.
   Students and parents related personal experiences of Alexander lending an ear or a hand to help them or fellow students in personal or academic problems.
   Jeanne Peterson said her daughter was a tuition paying student she sent to the school due its reputation for excellence. "I pay tuition to send my daughter to this school because of Ed Alexander," she said. Peterson said Alexander attended school plays her daughter took part in as part of the school's drama club.
   "If two students get in a fight, both get suspended," said Peterson of the grievance situation involving Alexander, Blevins and the school's director of vocational education Adeline Hyder.
   LeighAnne Ward whose daughter was a sophomore said she was "devastated" upon hearing of Alexander's suspension on Monday.
   "He loves kids and he is genuine about that," she said. "We are going to stay as long as it takes to get Ed back in school."
   Ward said an attorney had advised parents that students could protest before school began at 7:45 a.m. and after school dismissed at 2:15 p.m. If parents did not call in or sign out, students would be considered truant, she said.
   Parents said students were advised they would receive six days detention and be required to attend school on a Saturday if they were listed as "truant" for participating in the protest on Wednesday.
   Blevins stated all students involved in Wednesday's protest were listed as truant. Punitive action against students for truancy ranged from three to six days detention and possibly a Saturday detention as a make-up day, Blevins said.
   "They have ruined our Honors Day, the Top 10 Percent Awards Banquet, and our graduation," said Paul.