May 21, 2008 7:18 PM
MATTAPOISETT — Two students were arrested and another 15 to 20 staged a sit-in at Old Rochester Regional High School Wednesday in a protest that began after students briefly commandeered the intercom system during MCAS testing, school officials and students said.Thomas Buckley, 17, of 111 Acushnet Road, Mattapoisett, and Zachary Sherman, 17, of 79 Dexter Lane, Rochester, were charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and disturbing the school, according to police reports.
They were arraigned in Wareham District Court and released on personal recognizance; pre-trial is set for June 27, police said.
The incident unfolded around 8:30 a.m. when two to five students used a special code to access the school-wide intercom via a classroom system, officials and students said.
According to ORR High School Principal Sheila Haskins, one of the students read a passage from something they apparently were studying in an English or history class. Exactly what they read wasn’t clear, but Ms. Haskins said it might have been excerpts from a Fidel Castro speech. That was reflected in police reports.
However, some students said it was a passage from George Orwell’s novel, “1984.”
The intercom announcement was likely part of a senior prank, Ms. Haskins said, as today is the final day of classes for seniors.
“There wasn’t anything threatening — nothing that would cause any panic or alarm,” she said.
Superintendent Bill Cooper said that although the announcement was a disturbance to the ninth- and 10th-graders taking the MCAS, it should not affect the outcome of the test, as students are given as much time as they need to finish.
After the intercom announcement, Ms. Haskins gathered the senior students in the cafeteria to speak about appropriate behavior and consequences if they acted out, according to a press release from the Mattapoisett police.
Some students were disruptive and disrespectful to the principal, and police were called. Five officers from Marion and Mattapoisett responded to the school, and all but one of them left a short time later, officials said.
“There was a level of disrespect shown to school officials and police by the students,” Mattapoisett Police Chief Mary Lyons said.
Dr. Cooper and the principal said two of the students involved in the intercom incident were sent home from school for a one-day suspension but will be able to participate in all senior activities.
About two hours later, as word spread through the school, roughly 25 students gathered in the main corridor at ORR and began “expressing their displeasure with everything, I guess,” Dr. Cooper said.
No fights broke out; however, Mattapoisett Police Officer Mitchell Suzan, who was still at the scene, called for additional officers.
Several police cruisers responded with sirens blaring, students said.
According to police, the students were blocking two major hallways and would not return to their classrooms, despite repeated requests from Ms. Haskins and Assistant Principal Al Laboranti.
Police said the students in the lobby were screaming and yelling to “free” the suspended students. One female student held a sign.
“That’s disruptive to the learning environment and the kids who were trying to take the MCAS,” Chief Lyons said.
When police arrived, students questioned why they had to disperse. When told by police that they would be arrested if they did not go back to their classrooms, most of the students walked away, but two, Mr. Buckley and Mr. Sherman, stayed and were arrested, according to police.
“They were mouthing off,” Chief Lyons said.
Mr. Sherman could not be reached for comment but Mr. Buckley said Wednesday night that they were “involved in a protest with 10 or 15 other kids when (police) came and asked us to leave. I was starting to walk away when I was pushed up against the wall and handcuffed” by a Marion police officer he didn’t know.
“I was completely polite and I didn’t give anyone any back talk,” said Mr. Buckley, who said he spent three hours in jail before his arraignment.
Chief Lyons said there were reports that Mr. Buckley and Mr. Sherman were swearing at police.
Liza Buckley, Thomas’s mother, said Wednesday night that after her son, a junior, was arrested, she spoke with Officer Suzan, the ORR school resource officer. “He said Thomas was respectful and didn’t swear ... my son would never be disrespectful like that.”
Officer Suzan could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
By 11 a.m., the corridor was cleared, but at 12:20 p.m. students re-emerged and 15 to 20 of them staged a sit-in the hallway, prepared to fight for their right to peacefully assemble.
“Apparently we shed our civil rights when we walked in the school door,” said Lucy Turowski, also a senior, commenting on the students who were taken away in the earlier protest.
Students had printouts that reportedly listed their right to assemble and maintained they were careful not to block hallways or be noisy.
Additional police were not called during the afternoon incident, although at least two cruisers were in the parking lot for the 2:05 p.m. dismissal.
At the close of school, officials discovered three bathrooms had been vandalized with holes kicked in the walls and toilet paper strewn about, according to police.
Ms. Haskins emphasized that a relatively small number of students were involved in the disturbance, and the senior class should not be remembered for a few poor choices on the next to last day of school.
“I’d just not like to see a bad light shed on the seniors because two kids did something,” she said. “The majority of them are wonderful kids.”
Chief Lyons agreed.
“This is out of character for the school,” she said.
Contact Jennifer Lade at firstname.lastname@example.org