A student protest emptied classrooms Thursday at St. Croix Educational Complex, leading to classes being dismissed early.
The students were protesting what they said was the impending transfer of their principal, Kurt Vialet, from Complex to another school. Rumor of the transfer has been in the wind for several months, and Thursday the students decided to express their view.
The protest started at the beginning of the school day and lasted about five and a half hours.
"I was planning to give my class a quiz," said one teacher who asked that her name not be used. "I looked up and, where was everybody?"
The remaining eight students of the more than 20 in the class explained about the protest, which she said had been organized entirely by the students, mostly by cell phone and text message.
"I’m proud of them," the teacher said. "They’re standing up for what they believe in."
Noting that there has not been an official announcement that Vialet would be replaced at the Complex, the teacher added, "The kids always know everything before we do."
Out front, students lined Queen Mary Highway, waving hastily made signs. Members of the school band – under student direction – were playing music while students urged passing motorists to show support for the principal by honking.
"He shouldn’t leave," said a student who gave her name as Shana. Waving a "Keep Vialet" sign at a passing car, she added, "He’s caring and loving and a disciplinarian and he’s supportive!"
Another girl added, "He doesn’t need to go anywhere. They’re taking him away from us, and this is his home!"
While there were some school personnel evident among the crowd of several hundred students lining the street, none were seen by the Source to be participating in the protest. Instead, they seemed mostly to be keeping an eye on events as they transpired.
Neither V.I. Secretary of Education Ellen Terry nor St. Croix Superintendent Gary Molloy returned calls from the Source asking for comment. Specifically, messages left with the administrators asked if Vialet had been transferred or if he was likely to be, and if so, why. Further the message asked Terry and Molloy if any official announcement had been made.
While those messages were not returned and those questions went unanswered, two statements released later in the day by the Department of Education suggested Vialet is in fact being reassigned, although they did not address the question directly.
One of the two statements sent by Juel M. Anderson, the department’s public relations director, said:
"On Thursday, Education Commissioner Dr. La Verne Terry confirmed and strongly condemned the disruption of classes at the St. Croix Educational Complex, as students and staff participated in, what appeared to be, a planned protest of the impending transfer of Principal Kurt Vialet."
The statement quoted Terry as saying, “Today’s actions were simply appalling and unconscionable. Particularly at a time when the greatest need for our students is to be focused on their learning and not on anyone’s personal agendas. We are at a crossroads in the education of our students where their engagement is tantamount to their achievement and success, as well as the overall improvement of the system. Anything orchestrated to negate the work that has been done is a disservice to the students and this community, and should not be condoned.”
Molloy implied that the protest was initiated by adults, and said faculty and staff who participated in the protest or who took advantage of the disruption for unscheduled time off might end up paying for it.
In the statement he said, “This is a very sad day for the district and the department when students are being used as pawns in a situation that does not offer any benefit to their education and futures. I can safely say that the protest was indeed planned, while it appears that it took a turn for the worse spiraling out of control, the district does plan to go the course and verify attendance of administration and staff. Those persons who did not have approved advanced leave for the day will be docked. Additionally the day will have to be made up."
The subject of the protest – Principal Vialet – remained indoors and declined to talk to a reporter who came looking for a response. An office administrator carried a message in that the Source wanted to get his reaction, but he replied through her that he had nothing to say Thursday.
The department’s press release said Vialet was not helpful in getting the situation cooled down.
“A request was made by me [Molloy] for Principal Vialet to have all students returned on campus and into the auditorium so that I could address them, but that did not occur. Following a call for an update, Vialet indicated that he had a headache and was signing out for the day, leaving the assistant principals to deal with the unfortunate events and regaining control of the campus.”
A pair of police cars were on the scene and the police presence continued throughout the day, but V.I. Police Departent spokeswoman Melody Rames said the police were just there for safety, and officers took no action.
Terry said the Educational Complex will resume its regular schedule Friday.
"We are getting close to the end of the school year, and there is still much work to be accomplished. Therefore, I am making a plea to parents, imploring them in fact, to talk with their children about today’s events and ensure that they attend classes not only tomorrow, but every day and participate in all scheduled instructional activities.”