Vol. 18, No. 19 Oct. 6 - 19, 2005


Then and Now, Clinton Cultivates Young Activists


The organizational means may have changed, but the spirit of dissent felt very familiar to DeWitt Clinton alumnae as they watched students stage one of the largest walkouts in recent city history.

“It brought back memories,” said Greg Faulkner, Clinton class of 1971 and Community Board 7’s chair. “There’s a whole history at Clinton of teaching students to be independent thinkers.”

Students exercised that free spirit en masse last month when hundreds walked out in protest of metal detectors installed this year and a captive lunch program that ends their eating out privileges. Rumors started circulating about the safety devices last spring, and were confirmed in a mailing about the devices over the summer. Before classes resumed, students began posting angry messages about the change on Sconex, an on-line high school chat room.

Considering nearly 2,500 Clinton kids are Sconex members, or roughly half the school, word spread fast. A petition was drawn up the first day students returned to class and it traveled quickly. “We tried to make sure it got around to everyone in school,” said Anthony Stafford, 17, a Clinton student who helped push the efforts.

The protest, like the digital medium that spawned it, was organized fluidly. Anthony doesn’t even know some of the students who started pushing the petition, but before long, they’d netted approximately 1,000 signatures. A call to protest on Monday was posted on Sconex over the weekend, and a recent Clinton alumnus had his mom help with calling the media.

Jose David, one of the main organizers, arrived early on Monday to start things up. Students waiting in the long lines to be scanned joined the rally, and those inside the building soon followed suit.

“I guess they heard our chants,” said Anthony, a Decatur Avenue resident. “It was really a spontaneous thing.”

Successive waves of students poured out of the building during period changes, walking up to Jerome Avenue to buy construction paper for impromptu signs. Clinton’s principal, Geraldine Ambrosio, addressed the crowd, but said that the matter was in the hands of the Region 1 administration, according to Anthony. Undeterred, students marched peacefully over one-and-a-half miles to the Region 1 administrative office on Fordham Road.

Jose, Anthony and four other students were called up to meet with regional administrators. In a victory, students were promised future meetings to discuss the issue.

Twenty-five years ago, thousands of Clinton students also took to the streets after the Kent State massacre. They snaked from Bronx Science, then Walton, Roosevelt and Evander Childs high schools, picking up students and steam along the way. “Floods of kids came out,” said Gary Axelbank, Clinton class of 1971 and the host of the BronxTalk cable TV program. “People were setting fires along Mosholu Parkway and surrounding buses while locking arms.”

The next day, Clinton’s principal sanctioned a day of protest at a neighboring athletic field for the entire school community. “Both faculty and students gave speeches on subjects covering the four students killed at Kent State University, students’ rights, and the right to dissent,” stated an article about the events in Clinton’s school paper. Those who remained at school could attend a symposium on the Vietnam War.

Clinton’s history of activism runs deep. Faulkner, who was the student body president, remembers demonstrating over the school’s rampant overcrowding (Clinton made the 1963 Guinness Book of World Records for having the world’s largest school enrollment). Axelbank was a member of Clinton’s student court, which took up cases ranging from overdue library books to rowdy behavior.

“Clinton has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to activism,” said James Garvey, an alumnus who is now co-authoring a history of the school. The working title is “The Castle on Mosholu Parkway: A History of DeWitt Clinton High School and Its Extraordinary Influence on American Life.”

Some of the independent spirit was, and still is, actively cultivated by the school. Faulkner went to leadership weekends while at Clinton, where assemblymen, judges and other successful alumnae would coach students. “The history of activism goes back far,” said Faulkner, who remembers the men (the school was all boys until the 1980s), many of whom graduated back in the 1930s, talking about Clinton’s independent spirit in their day.

The school still trains new leaders during the weekends. Anthony has participated in a college bound program for years now, where he often does public speaking, but this was the first march he’s organized. If their demands aren’t met, he says Clinton students plan to hold another protest, and the Sconex board is still buzzing with calls to revolt. “We’re going to make it bigger, and make sure our message is heard even louder,” Anthony said enthusiastically.

Regardless, Clinton alumnae are thrilled to see the school’s independent streak is still alive and well. “It was one of the best signs I’ve seen about our young people in a generation,” Axelbank said.

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