“If you are taking something good from us, you better give us something really good back,” said 16-year old Cuauhtemoc Mendoza, about the desired outcome of last month’s student-lead petition drive, walk-out, and sit-in his classmates organized at Austin Polytechnical Academy.

The students protested the firing of seven of their teachers. Mendoza, one of the organizers of the well-planned and executed May 16 walk-out, said the decision to take action was an easy one. The Tuesday before, the students overheard something about their teachers perhaps getting fired.

“We took action instantly, “Mendoza said. “We typed up a petition and by Wednesday morning we were getting signatures. We got around 300 signatures the first day.” 

The petition was turned in the next day to the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Later that day, the students learned officially that their teachers were being fired. Seven of APA’s 30 teachers were let go by interim-Principal Fabby Williams. Williams not only fired them, but allegedly gave many a “do not rehire” designation, which prevents them from being hired anywhere else in the CPS system. 

According to Chicago News Cooperative, a nonprofit online news outlet, five of the seven fired teachers had received “excellent” ratings in previous years. The idea protest, Mendoza said, came from his previous class lectures and discussions about how organized action has made a difference historically. The students gathered secretly and organized an early-morning walk-out for Monday, May 16.

“Our plan was leaked to the administration by one or some of the students,” Mendoza said. “The administration tried to threaten the students by telling them that if they participated in the walk-out, they would receive a one- to 10-day suspension, and prom and graduation taken away from the seniors and juniors.”

Despite the threat, about 140 of the 358 student body poured outside to march peacefully around the campus building at 231 N. Pine. Comprised of mainly unafraid juniors and a few freshmen, the group carried picket signs and chanted, “Save our teachers.” 

Mendoza recalled that while outside on the picket line they got a call from a freshman inside who said they were being “locked in.”

“They said they had security at the front door and they locked the doors, and they couldn’t get out,” Mendoza said.   

About an hour into the march, interim-Principal Williams came out and blasted the students over a megaphone. According to Mendoza, the students were given two options: either go back inside and there would be no consequences, no suspension, or, stay outside, and “you will get arrested.”   

“So, we gave him a counter offer and said ‘if we go back inside, will you sit down and listen to us and hear what we have to say? And he said, ‘No, I am not going to do that,'” Mendoza said. 

The students continued to march, but then, “Later, everybody thought about it and decided to go back inside,” Mendoza said.

Three days later, on May 20, the students were suspended. 

Before being disciplined, the students decided to hold a sit-in on Wednesday May 19, in the classes of some of the fired teachers. Several students, including Mendoza, sat in on a couple of classes, and when asked if they were in their correct classrooms during the correct class time. When the students answered no, Williams brought in security and the dean and had the students removed from the classroom. 

Student: ‘Fired teachers didn’t orchestrate protest’

Mendoza said he thinks between 30 to 40 students were suspended, though various numbers have been reported. Mendoza also believes school officials, who had been outside videotaping the march, actually tried to cut deals with the students to get them to turn on the teachers. 

Mendoza heard that APA deans had interrogated the students, asking them “So, what did this teacher say?” or “What did this teacher do to get you to be involved in this?” 

Mendoza believes some students cut deals because they didn’t want a suspension on their record.

“They didn’t want to get suspended for five days,” he said, insisting that the students’ actions weren’t orchestrated by the teachers.

“The teachers weren’t there, and we didn’t want them there because their presence would be a conflict of interest,” Mendoza added.  

The day of the walkout, Williams called a meeting for the following Monday which he did not attend, according to Mendoza. The meeting reportedly took place the next day with Williams in attendance.

“He basically gave us the run around,” Mendoza said. “He said what he was doing was right because it was all for the educational welfare of the students.” 

According to Mendoza, Williams also said he would lift the suspensions and there would be no permanent consequences because in his opinion, it was not the students’ fault, it was the teachers’ for putting the kids in this predicament.

Williams was unreachable for comment for this story after several attempted phone calls.

When asked if he felt he and his classmates had done the right thing, Mendoza said, “Yes…We are hoping to get our teachers back and to get a new principal as well. All we want is our teachers back and a good principal, and everything will go back to normal. If we don’t get our teachers back, we are going to try to work with the teachers we have.”