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Minnesota Students Suspended for Opposing Torture

by Jess Sundin |
January 11, 2007
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Student activists deserve to have their voices be heard - both in the community and in their own schools. Please contact the Bloomington School Superintendent Les Fujitake by phone at 952-681-6402 or by fax at 952-681-6406 to voice your solidarity with the YAWR chapter at Jefferson High School. Calls should cover the following demands: Jefferson students have the right to free political speech in school, including wearing symbolic clothing while tabling at lunch; and the administration should reverse the suspension of Ben Zabel, who was within his rights to wear an orange jumpsuit in the lunchroom as way to protest torture in Guantanamo.

Bloomington, MN - Youth Against War and Racism (YAWR) activists were disciplined here Jan. 10 for educating their fellow students at Thomas Jefferson High School. They distributed literature and did guerilla theater to advertise for the Jan. 11 international day of protest to shut down the U.S. prison for ‘terror suspects’ at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The student activists decided to mobilize for the Minneapolis demonstration and to table at their high school the day before the protest to increase awareness about the torture, abuse and lack of due process for detainees at Guantanamo.

Senior Ben Zabel explained what happened, “We chose to put on an informative display concerning the human rights abuses taking place in Guantanamo Bay. The main feature of the demonstration was me dressing up as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner in the schools cafeteria. Midway through the demonstration, Jefferson’s principal, Mr. Hill, demanded that we stop the demonstration immediately. I refused and was suspended for insubordination. This is an abuse of the school’s administrative authority and this is a blatant example of censorship of political dissent.”

Zabel asked principal Hill to discuss the issue in front of the other Youth Against War and Racism students and to have a public dialogue about what their rights to speech are at school, instead of having a private discussion in Hill’s office. Another student, senior Nick Groenke, photographed Zabel and Hill’s interaction and the guerrilla theatre. Principal Hill demanded Groenke’s BlackBerry. Hill threatened that if Groenke refused to turn over his BlackBerry he would be suspended. After Groenke gave the BlackBerry to the principal, the principal erased the photographs.

“This is just another incident in the administration’s ongoing campaign of intimidation, but we won’t be silenced. We have the right to talk about and organize against human rights abuses and the war on Iraq,” explained Groenke. Students have repeatedly been threatened with suspension for their efforts to pass out flyers and to organize participation in several city-wide walk outs. This is the first actual suspension of a Jefferson YAWR activist for organizing efforts.