Police called to break up RLMS protest

Published 8:56 am Friday, April 6, 2007

Police, administrators and community members spent approximately 30 minutes Thursday morning struggling with between 300 and 400 Robert Lewis Middle School students who refused to go to class.

The students said they were protesting the alleged suspension of their interim principal, Larry Hooper.

Natchez-Adams schools Superintendent Anthony Morris said Hooper was not suspended Thursday. Morris would not comment on any future suspension days.

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Natchez Police officers confiscated fireworks and protest signs from the crowd. Some students threw water balloons and yelled.

The protest — planned the night before, according to students — began just before the school day started at 8:15 a.m.

Many of the students wore red shirts under their required uniform shirts, something they said was a form of protest.

“We want Mr. Hooper back,” student Jamacia Smith said. “He’s suspended because he told us good luck on the tests.”

Morris would not comment on the claim, saying he could not discuss personnel matters. RLMS students took a state test several weeks ago, and Hooper reportedly entered a classroom after tests had been handed out and spoke to students. State and federal laws strictly limit the speech and actions of teachers and administrators during testing.

School administrators, teachers, the three on-duty security guards and a few community members who had heard rumors of the Thursday protest were on the school grounds when the protest began. They tried to control the crowd, telling students to go inside to their classrooms.

The students crowded around the front of the school building but did not go inside. Soon, police officers arrived, using bullhorns to direct the students.

At one point, a group of approximately 50 students broke away from the crowd and police officers, running through the parking lot to the park across a small street. Police ordered them to return to the school property.

Teachers and administrators began telling students Hooper was not suspended, but had taken a personal day Thursday. They said a tree limb fell on his house, and he needed to get it removed.

Hooper later confirmed the story about the tree, but said he was appealing a suspension from the district.

When students did finally enter the building they ran through the hallways, banging on walls and lockers and yelling.

By 8:45 a.m. all students were seated in their classrooms and officers and volunteers were stationed in each hallway.

Assistant Principal Marilyn Turner, district Director of Operations Wayne Barnett and local minister Clifton Marvel spoke to students over the intercom, telling them where Hooper was and asking for cooperation throughout the day.

Morris was on his way to Jackson for a state superintendent’s meeting early Thursday, but turned around when he got the call about RLMS. He arrived at the school around 10 a.m.

Several other central office administrators were already on campus along with Natchez High Principal James Loftin.

Students were held in their first period class until after 11 a.m., and parents requesting to check their children out were sent to the cafeteria because of space constraints in the main office.

By the end of the day 340 students had checked out. The enrollment at RLMS is approximately 700.

“I had a call that there were firecrackers, and I got over here,” parent Michael Hamilton said while he waited to take his son home.

Ceola Hendricks has a grandchild in the seventh-grade and was concerned for his safety, she said.

“I want to make sure he’s safe,” she said. “He called me. I really don’t want to think about (what’s causing this).”

At 10 a.m. Morris said everything was under control.

“We are still in the mode of trying to uncover and investigate this,” he said. “To me, it was a major deviation from the normal and I would term it a crisis.”

Morris said he’d heard some rumors that adults had helped students organize the protest.

Several students said earlier they were protesting on the direction of their parents.

At 9:30 a.m. Hooper came to the school in jeans and a sweatshirt and visited each classroom telling students he was OK and asking them to behave.

“Good morning my kids,” Hooper said in one classroom. “Be on your best behavior. Do not act a fool in this school.”

Hooper told all students he loved them, promised to have a school dance at the end of next week and asked them to go to church on Easter Sunday.

Students responded by screaming his name and rushing to hug him.

Hooper wouldn’t answer questions about his suspension, but said the students could answer them.

“Did I do anything wrong?” he asked one room.

They responded saying, “No.”

One student said, “You came in (during testing) and said you loved us.”

Hooper was hired as assistant principal at the school at the start of the year. In the fall, he was promoted to interim principal when Principal Bettye Bell had to step aside for health concerns.

Morris said Hooper was originally hired through the first semester, but then his contract was extended indefinitely.

Tensions at RLMS and in the community have been high since a Tuesday night meeting to discuss looming consequences to be imposed by the federal government. The school has failed to meet No Child Left Behind requirements for four years.

Tuesday’s meeting drew a crowd of approximately 200 parents and community members who demanded changes at the school and expressed praise for Hooper.

All district schools will be out today and Monday for Easter holidays, something Morris said was probably a good thing.

Police Chief Mike Mullins said there were no injuries and no arrests. Officers checked in with the school throughout the day and were present for dismissal.