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February 28, 2018

Cherry Hill East principal changes tune on student protests

Dennis Perry rescinds disciplinary threats, says school will help organize walkout

After students ignored threats of suspensions and other consequences to protest at Cherry Hill High School East for two days, the school's administration is backtracking from its hardline approach to address a growing uproar on campus.

In a letter to the school community Tuesday, principal Dennis Perry said he was "proud" of the way students have expressed their voices and presented steps moving forward to alleviate their concerns.

"Many East students have emerged as leaders in this situation," Perry wrote. "I am very proud of our students and the manner in which they have conducted themselves."

Students held a sit-in protest in the school's hallways Monday for history teacher Timothy Locke, who was suspended after comments he made to a class about the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Locke questioned the quality of security at the school and suggested a similar massacre could happen at Cherry Hill East.

In response to the suspension, students organized the demonstration to both call for Locke's reinstatement and demand better school safety policies. On the morning announcements prior to Monday's sit-in, Perry offered to hear student's concerns in the school auditorium but said anyone who participated in the protest would be suspended and prohibited from participating in the senior trip and senior prom if they were in 12th grade.

"On Monday morning, Feb. 26, I was alerted to an online post that asked students to '... create as much disruption as possible.' My immediate concern was for the safety of all students," Perry wrote in Tuesday's letter. "As educators and adults, we have a responsibility to help our students channel their concerns, to have a voice, and to do so in an appropriate way."

Video from the protest shows his initial threats of suspension were largely ignored. The next day, more than 100 students participated in a walkout, gathering in front of the school building and then on the school's track outside.

That morning, Perry again had tried to deter students from participating, saying leaving the building wasn't safe, but mentioned nothing about possible suspensions or other disciplinary actions.

Tuesday's letter shows the demonstrations were at least partially successful. It makes no mention of Locke — Perry has maintained in meetings with students he is not permitted to discuss specific faculty members — but the principal did applaud the students who organized Tuesday's walkout.

"Student leaders asked me to speak to the crowd. I was very proud of the students and the way in which they maintained their composure," Perry wrote. 

He noted that school faculty members went outside to supervise the demonstration. 

"The outside meeting moved into the auditorium where several students expressed their concerns for school safety. Many good ideas were shared and students were encouraged to continue their spirit of involvement."

Perry laid out a plan to address students' concerns moving forward, including allowing them to participate in the national school walkout in response to the Parkland shooting:

1. Students expressed a desire for regular open dialog with school administration. Moving forward, a time each week will be provided for students to meet with members of the school’s administration.

2. Arrangements are being made to hold assemblies on school safety for students, engaging experts in the field.

3. An encouraging letter writing campaign to students in the Parkland schools.

4. An effort to provide students with the information and time to contact their congressional representatives about issues which are important to them.

5. On March 14, we are planning a student “Walk.” This will be an organized and safe opportunity for students to participate in a national event.

6. A student-staff-parent-administration committee will be formed to discuss the current state of security at East and to make recommendations for improvement.

7. Support students in expressing their views in ways that will be heard.

Perry also rescinded his plan that students who joined Monday's sit-in would not be allowed to attend the in senior trip, prom or graduation, although he made no mention of the threats of suspensions. An email request to Cherry Hill East administrators Wednesday morning seeking clarification wasn't immediately returned.

"I want to thank our students for the respectful manner in which most have conducted themselves," Perry wrote. "We have amazing students who are passionate and involved. As a school community, I welcome this opportunity to work together for real change."

You can read the full letter below.