ANDOVER — Students at Andover High School who were involved in painting the message "black lives matter" on a large rock in front of the school say they were treated unfairly by their principal.
They said he was aware of what they planned to do, but never explicitly told them not to paint the message.
They said their message on what is called "the rock" was a response to a fight at the school Wednesday morning involving two male students — one white and one a minority student.
"We wanted to bring attention to our friend, who is black and was involved in the fight, and who police forced into an ambulance," said Andover High senior James Call, 17. "From videos I've seen of the event, police appeared to focus on my black friend and not the other student involved in the fight."
Senior Ethan Gasse, 18, said the fight was a "mutual instigation" and that the minority student was taken away in an ambulance, even though he had sustained no injuries.
"The injustice was that he received a 10-day suspension and received the charge of assaulting an officer," Gasse said. "Yet video and witnesses suggest he did not (assault an officer). The white student (involved in the fight) received a three-day suspension. We're saying it was an unequal treatment and that the response by police was racially charged."
Call said that he and his friends who painted "black lives matter'' on the rock were looking to start a conversation about "subconscious biases" that exist in the community, and to "open a conversation intended to improve the situation."
"We really want everyone to work together to create a better environment for students," Call said.
Nicole Kieser, a spokeswoman for the district, said Principal Philip Conrad and the high school administration worked with students Friday morning to ensure a safe environment for everyone at the school.
"I was told that the principal asked to form a core group of students to meet with him on Monday to discuss changes students want to see, and I'm part of that core group who will be meeting with him," Gasse said.
Kieser confirmed that Conrad plans to meet with students on Monday.
"It would be unfair to speculate on the conversation, but he hopes to have an open and productive dialogue with the students," she said.
Call's sister, Naomi Call, 16, a junior at the high school, posted on social media this week that Black Lives Matter is a movement focused on eradicating deeply rooted systemic racism.
"We believe that painting it on the rock is a step in the right direction to help AHS students, faculty, and all others in our community become more cognizant of unintentional bias against people of color," she said in her posting.
Gasse said the message added to the rock was initially planned by four students, three of whom met with the principal Wednesday after school to discuss ideas for a message in support of student equality, as a response to the treatment of the minority student involved in the fight earlier that day.
"Our principal suggested a message that would unite the community and we later came up with 'black lives matter,'" Gasse said. "At the rock, the principal never told us to stop what we were doing and he never told us that we'd be suspended."
In a letter to parents, Conrad said that on Wednesday afternoon, a group of students approached him requesting to paint the rock in front of the high school.
"I asked for the students to wait until we were able to meet and hold a collaborative conversation," Conrad's letter said. "They disregarded my offer and painted the rock without permission."
Naomi Call said the principal wanted to ensure that students weren't being hasty or irresponsible in choosing what they painted.
"My brother stepped forward and mentioned that we had discussed the words 'black lives matter,''' she said. "Mr. Conrad expressed his approval of that idea, and urged us to consider it and other uplifting messages that would open conversations within our community, rather than stifle them."
Gasse said that shortly after they painted their message on the rock, the principal returned and told him and Call to see him in the morning.
"We had no idea we would be suspended for two days," Gasse said. "I believe our suspensions (for vandalism) were wrongly given. We received our letters of suspension on Thursday night, and they also noted insubordination, which we were never told about during our meeting."
Naomi Call questioned the validity of the charge of vandalism, saying the school's student handbook is unclear as to whether written permission is needed to paint the rock.
"We knew that we could face some short-term consequences from the school that could impact our academic futures," she said. "However, we are willing to endure any short-term repercussions at the hand of the AHS administration in order to stand up for what we believe in — racial equality. It’s worth the opportunity to help our Andover High School community become more united and more accepting."
James Call said the phrase "black lives matter'' was added to the rock, "artfully" and that it did not interfere with a rainbow that had been painted on the rock last week in support of National Coming Out Day. He said he'd spoken with members of the school's Gender and Sexuality Club to ensure they were comfortable with the addition of the "black lives matter'' phrase.
Gasse said that one group of students was involved in painting the rock and another was involved in staging a walkout of more than 50 students on Thursday morning.
"A majority of the student body was in support of both actions, both of which were a message in support of (racial) equality," Gasse said.
Gasse said that while he was home on Friday serving his suspension, a group of students held a peaceful protest at the school in support of the Black Lives Matter message.
Gasse said the student body wants an apology from administration and especially an apology to minority students for what he said is profiling that happened not only during the Wednesday morning fight, but to those minority students who feel they have been profiled in the past.
"There are other changes we'd like to see but we are still working on those," Gasse said. "I think the fight and the mistreatment of the black student was a catalytic event. We're looking to gather signatures and stories of other students who feel like they've been profiled in the past."