Published in the Express-News, Express-News June 28 2003
by Susan Ives
The first project of the fledgling Amnesty International chapter at Burbank High School was a letter writing party. To His Excellency, Mr. Thabo Mabeki: I am concerned about the spiraling human rights crisis in Zimbabwe. Mr. President: I am worried about children held in horrible conditions in Philippine prisons.
For more than 40 years Amnesty members have been writing letters protesting human rights abuses. Today, with 1.5 million members in 150 countries, the London-based organization has opposed oppression from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.
The Burbank letters were never mailed. The students carefully added to their to-do list, “raise money for postage,” then started planning their next action: support of Amnesty’s day of silence in solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.
The details were reported in a May 28 Express-News article. Burbank principal Andrew Rodriguez told the students that although he wouldn’t sanction an official Amnesty event they could participate as individuals. On their own time the 17 Amnesty members enlisted supporters and made hundreds of stickers explaining their silence.
The organizers anticipated backlash from other students, the same bullies who persecute their gay friends. That didn’t happen. Classes weren’t disrupted either. Honors student Andrea Adame said she had a remarkably productive day, not distracted by the usual teenage chatter. Not one teacher complained. The harassment and distraction came from the administrators, who barged into classrooms, ripped stickers from shirts and hauled stunned students to the office, threatening suspensions.
Principal Rodriguez killed the Amnesty chapter. Amnesty no longer exists at this school. Not this year, not next year, not the year after, he said. The students asked for help from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a complaint demanding Amnesty’s reinstatement.
The ACLU letter cited as precedent Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 Supreme Court decision that had me dancing in the hallways when I was in high school. Tinker affirmed the right of students to wear black armbands supporting the Vietnam moratorium, saying “That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”
The court decision called public schools “enclaves of totalitarianism.” The chain of international compassion will be complete if school girls in Afghanistan someday huddle to write, “Dear Superintendent Olivárez – please respect the freedom of the students at Burbank so that they can continue to defend ours.”
Rodriguez told the students that they would never be able to change the world – why didn’t they focus on something closer to home? If Burbank High School’s loftiest goal is to produce graduates who cheer loudly at pep rallies and lobby for better cafeteria food they should shut their doors. The greatest gift we give to the rising generation is our promise that they can indeed change the world. To do less is a failure, a betrayal and a lie.
When the Amnesty club is reinstated at Burbank – and I am optimistic that it will be – don’t be surprised if there are 100 students crowded in the science classroom writing letters to Fidel Castro, to the generals in Myanmar. They are now stakeholders in the international struggle for human rights.
The last act of the Burbank Amnesty club was to write another letter, this time to their principal. They thanked him for disrupting their day of silence. Students who never would have rallied around their gay peers were so incensed at the administration’s crackdown that they joined the cause, they wrote. What was expected to be a small action has received nationwide attention. They can’t wait for the new school year to begin. They intend to change the world, one letter, one sticker, one student at a time.