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LOOKING BACK: In 2002, 50 Petaluma students suspended after war protest

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

SUSPENSIONS PUT STUDENTS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

When approximately 50 Petaluma High students received one-day suspensions recently for walking out of class to protest a possible war against Iraq, they found themselves suddenly in the spotlight. As the only group of students in the county to receive such discipline for their participation in the Nov. 20 nationwide demonstration, the PHS administration became the focus of a certain amount of community rancor.

Support for the students included a protest by more than 50 adults last Tuesday, and even a letter from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to PHS Principal Michael Simpson, students knew ahead of time they would receive the suspensions for leaving class to protest. Not only that, he said, but another student-organized alternative was available to address the issue and avoid negative consequences.

Simpson also made two announcements over the loudspeaker that “serious consequences” would follow a walkout. He added that an “Awareness Day” was held Nov. 26 with a special session to discuss the situation in Iraq.

“Instructional time for expression of political or philosophical views is an inappropriate time for staging a walkout,” said Simpson. “This was a direct defiance of administrative directive to remain in class.”

Steven Cozza, one of the student organizers, confirmed the students had been warned ahead of time about the disciplinary action that would follow the walkout.

“We totally accepted it.”

He said many students felt that supporting peace was more important than getting suspended. In retrospect, he said, the punishment seems a bit “harsh.”

(Excerpted from the PEtaluma Argus-Courier, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002; story by Chip McCauley)

On Nov. 20, 2002, as escalating news reports described an imminent possible invasion of Iraq, high school students across the country staged a coordinated national walkout during school to protest America’s going to war. Petaluma was no different, with students from Petaluma High and Casa Grande High joining the national walkout, despite warnings that leaving campus could result in official reprimands or other actions.

Those threats were not empty.

Not long after the walkout, organized in part by then-seniors Steven Cozza and Rosie Steffy, around fifty PHS students were suspended for a day, with the suspensions initially placed on the students’ permanent records. Casa protestors, on the other hand, were not similarly punished. In fact, as reported in the Petaluma Argus-Courier on Dec. 11, 2002 (see excerpt of original story), those 50 PHS walk-outs were the only students in the country to receive suspensions.

“I can’t remember exactly how it all started,” says Cozza, now a real estate agent in Petaluma. “We were obviously not supportive of any impending invasion of Baghdad. It was a nationwide thing. As teenagers, you often feel helpless, so it felt good to be do something. We met in the gym, and we walked out. We went to the East Washington overcrossing, and made signs and protested. It was a big thing.”

Reminded of Principal Simpson’s quote, and the suspension levied against Cozza and his fellow walk-outs, Cozza laughs.

“That’s right! We got suspended. Mike Simpson did that?” he says, adding, “We’re good friends now. I can’t believe he suspended us.”

Asked if, 15 years after the fact, he has any new perspective on the walk-out, Cozza says that, given the same situation, he’d do it again.

“They allowed some students to have a protest on campus, in front of the other students, but that didn’t feel strong enough. It felt like a sorry compromise,” he says, likening it to telling someone you’ll let them stand up and speak, but then failing to turn on the microphone. “I’m just speaking for myself, but being able to protest on campus is something you can anytime, on any issue. Our country was about to go to war. We wanted our voices heard by the community. We had something to say, and protesting in a bottle wasn’t going to cut it.”

Asked he felt the protest made any difference, he’s quiet for a moment.

“Did we have an impact? Well, our country still went to war, and thousands of Americans died, so maybe not. But it did give some of us kids a chance, some of them for the very first time, to stand up for what we believed in. It was practicing democracy. That’s always a good thing.”

What wasn’t such a good thing was earning a suspension as a senior in high school, just as applications to colleges were going into the mail. It was a problem faced by most of the other students who participated in the off-campus protest. Despite having been warned of the consequences, some students — and their parents, in particular — began to question whether the punishment was perhaps a bit too severe for the crime.

“It just seemed so vindictive and over-the-top,” points out Jeanette Cozza, Steven’s mother, who remembers the details of the protest and its aftermath even more vividly than her son.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

SUSPENSIONS PUT STUDENTS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

When approximately 50 Petaluma High students received one-day suspensions recently for walking out of class to protest a possible war against Iraq, they found themselves suddenly in the spotlight. As the only group of students in the county to receive such discipline for their participation in the Nov. 20 nationwide demonstration, the PHS administration became the focus of a certain amount of community rancor.

Support for the students included a protest by more than 50 adults last Tuesday, and even a letter from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to PHS Principal Michael Simpson, students knew ahead of time they would receive the suspensions for leaving class to protest. Not only that, he said, but another student-organized alternative was available to address the issue and avoid negative consequences.

Simpson also made two announcements over the loudspeaker that “serious consequences” would follow a walkout. He added that an “Awareness Day” was held Nov. 26 with a special session to discuss the situation in Iraq.

“Instructional time for expression of political or philosophical views is an inappropriate time for staging a walkout,” said Simpson. “This was a direct defiance of administrative directive to remain in class.”

Steven Cozza, one of the student organizers, confirmed the students had been warned ahead of time about the disciplinary action that would follow the walkout.

“We totally accepted it.”

He said many students felt that supporting peace was more important than getting suspended. In retrospect, he said, the punishment seems a bit “harsh.”

(Excerpted from the PEtaluma Argus-Courier, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002; story by Chip McCauley)

“All the high schools in Sonoma County participated and yet none of their students were suspended,” she recalls. “That’s part of why, when the suspensions hit the news, it became a national story. And that’s when the ACLU stepped in.”

She says she remembers the phone call coming in the evening the news story first broke.

“It was so surreal,” she laughs. “There was someone from the ACLU asking if we would be interested in having them represent the students, pro bono, in a lawsuit suit against the school district.”

Jeanette Cozza, an elementary school teacher for 36, says she certainly understood the administration’s perspective, up to a point. But the high school’s action still felt lopsided when compared to the far lesser warnings that all the other students in the county received for walking out.

“So, I told the ACLU yes, and they did represent us, and I still remember sitting there in that meeting with the school district. It was so awesome. One thing I learned was that the education code, this great big book, is like the Bible. It is so open to interpretation, you can twist it to mean anything you want it to mean.”

In the end, the ACLU, the parents, and the students prevailed. According to Jeanette Cozza, the students’ records were eventually retroactively expunged

“All that time, the administration was saying, ‘Kids should be in school learning,’ which was ironic, because their punishment was to keep them out of school entirely for a whole day. Anyway, you can bet that those kids definitely learned something from that experience. They learned that you can’t let bullies try to push you around and take away your right to speak your mind.”

Asked how she feels about Steven’s actions today, she laughs.

“I was so proud of him then, and I’m so proud of him now,” she says. “I’m proud of every student who stood up and let their feelings be known.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)