Last Friday, Newport High School senior Alex Su spent third period in the girl’s bathroom. She and her friends drew up last-minute posters in anticipation of the school bell, which would signal not only the start of a walkout at their school, but also a groundswell of support around the district that one NHS parent likened to the #MeToo movement.
When an administrator came into the bathroom to reprimand the students, Su put her hand in front of the woman’s face and said, “I’m not talking to you.” After all, Su had already tried talking to the adults at her school, and they hadn’t listened.
An unexpected flood of support
Several weeks ago, Su met with assistant principal Leif Moe-Lobeda to discuss a complaint from Su’s ex-boyfriend, another Newport High School student, alleging that she was bullying him. (That claim has since been dismissed, according to Su.) In that meeting, Su said she told Moe-Lobeda about the physically abusive nature of her past relationship. She felt Moe-Lobeda had dismissed her, so later that night she sent him a Google Teams message saying as much. Su said he apologized in-person the next day, but nothing came of it.
Moe-Lobeda has not responded to my request for comment, but I will update this post if I hear back.
The parents of all the students I spoke to for this piece gave their kids permission to talk to me.
When none of the adults at the school acted, Su said she realized that if she wanted something done right, she was going to have to do it herself.
Four weeks ago, Su spoke out about this inaction on her Snapchat and Instagram story. The posts have attracted the attention of over 8,000 viewers, she said. Lobeda called Su into his office once again, but this time to ask her to remove her posts under threat of “consequences,” Su said. But Su did no such thing.
“I let [Moe-Lobeda] know that if he wasn’t going to take any action, then I was going to,” said Su.
Su wants the school to transfer the student who allegedly abused her into different classes. She also wants better, more efficient processes around reporting violence.
Su’s friends organized an all-school walkout for Friday, Nov. 19 at 10:45 a.m. Su was nervous that no one would come, but, when the bell rang, an estimated 700 students flooded the courtyard. The show of solidarity brought Su to tears.
“It was kind of bittersweet to think I have 700 kids that I've never even met, supporting me, but admin, the people who should care, don't care,” Su said.
The school went into lockdown in response to the protest, which Principal Dion Yahoudy said “escalated to substantial disruption to the educational process.” Administration issued emergency expulsions to five students. Instead of getting justice, Su got expelled.
“The community needs to heal”
The expulsions lead to a mixture of outrage and confusion.
“[The school] expelled the students because they created an unsafe environment at school. But obviously those students felt like their school environment was already unsafe before the walkout because they had to go to school and be in classes with their abusers,” said Celia Conti, a senior at NHS.
On Monday Nov. 22, every first period class at NHS had a discussion about Friday’s events. The school also set up “safe rooms” for further discussion and counseling. Conti said everyone spoke in vague terms – “there’s a complete disconnect between students and staff.”
From Conti’s perspective, the main message from the school district is that “the community needs to heal.”
“We don't understand how we're supposed to heal as a community if we're not on the same page,” Conti said.
Students are not ready to forgive and forget. On Tuesday Nov. 23, hundreds of NHS students wrote letters to the administration at a silent sit-in for 50 minutes – 10 minutes for each of the students the school expelled. More students joined with walkouts at Mercer Island, Interlake, and Sammamish.
Riju Chawla, a sophomore, helped organize the walkout at Interlake High School, which is in the same school district as NHS. The organizers at Interlake tried to get teachers on their side, but only one responded out of the 10 they contacted.
The Interlake walkout was only supposed to last 20 minutes, but with so many students sharing their own stories about the administration, the walkout lasted an hour. Chawla believes administration so often dismisses students in order to “uphold their reputation.” Chawla and Conti both agree the scope of the issue is much greater than a single school or school district.
Students from several schools confirm that they will continue to protest until the administration acts.
“A very bad PR move”
On Tuesday, Yahoudy told NHS families that staff and administrators are “committed to working with our student body moving forward to continue to listen to and learn from students, to heal, and to develop more clarity about how we prioritize student safety at Newport. We take all allegations and reports regarding safety very seriously and have policies and procedures that guide how we respond, to ensure that our students feel safe in our schools.”
In the coming days, Su and others will appeal their expulsions. Su believes the school will likely reinstate the students because, in her words, it would be “a very bad PR move” not to. Su captured the attention of some heavy-hitters: Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Bellevue), the National Chinese Association, the ACLU, and — closer to home — concerned parents who plan to speak on the issue at the next Bellevue School Board meeting.
If her appeal is not successful, as a senior applying for college, Su said the situation is “a little worrying.”
Su said, “I've come to the conclusion that I am willing to put my entire education and future on the line to change something.”