At least 100 to 150 students, perhaps more, staged a sometimes raucous, but essentially peaceful sit-in for nearly three hours March 15 in the atrium of Riverside-Brookfield High School to protest the school board’s unanimous vote Tuesday night not to rehire social studies teacher Jill Musil.
Musil, who has taught at RBHS since 2012, will lose her job at the end of the school year.
The sit-in started at about 12:20 p.m. and lasted until the end of the school day at 3:05 p.m.
“When the school bell rang for dismissal at the end of the day they left peacefully,” said Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel, who was on hand with a few other police officers to monitor the situation.
Weitzel said police were there only to ensure the safety of students, staff and visitors and merely stood on the edges of the crowd of students and observed.
Dean Neil Dughetti and security guard Mark Ruge stood in the back monitoring the situation, but made no attempt to end the sit-in.
The Landmark could observe much of the sit-in courtesy of a student via a live stream on Facebook, but a photographer from the Landmark was not allowed past the vestibule at the main entrance of the school during the sit-in.
“It’s not an event where we want adults from the outside mingling with students on the inside,” said District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis.
During the sit-in, students took turns speaking in support of Musil and airing other concerns.
“Mrs. Musil cares about black students, about queer students, about Hispanic students,” one boy said during the sit in.
Another boy accused the school board of taking away the one good thing about the school.
“RB says they care, but why do they take away the one good thing we have, a good teacher,” the boy said. “When does seven people become more than all of us.”
The sit-in was at times raucous. Many students periodically broke into chants. They briefly yelled derisive chants about various RBHS administrators, including brief chants of “Where’s Smetana,” referring to RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana, and “We want Mannon” and “Fire Mannon” as Assistant Principal of Student Affairs Dave Mannon stood impassively off to the side. For a brief time, a few students chanted “Shut Down RB” and “Let Her Teach,” referring to Musil.
The organizers of the sit-in struggled to keep the control of the message and tamp down disrespectful statements.
“I want to make it clear that, above all, that a lot of the lewd comments are not what we are here for and not what we stand for,” senior Rosie Nolan, one of the protest organizers, told the crowd that packed the atrium near the school’s main entrance.
Another girl urged the students to follow the example set by Musil.
“All the swear words going around, that’s not going to help at all,” the girl said. “Everyone here is for Mrs. Musil. Everyone knows her, everyone here loves her and Mrs. Musil has taught us to be respectful to each other, and not only to each other, but to the administration too, no matter how badly they treat us.”
Skinkis briefly appeared before the students, asking them to write down their questions and concerns for him to address. He then walked away as some students yelled at him to remain and answer questions.
After the sit-in Skinkis, Smetana and Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction Kylie Gregor met with 10 student leaders of the protest, nine of whom were girls, for about 50 minutes.
“I told them that I understand that they’re concerned about the decision and that I respect that they have a relationship with this teacher and that they want to support their teacher,” Skinkis said. “But at the same time, there was a tough decision that had to be made.”
Skinkis said he clarified a few things for the students, telling them that a disagreement between Musil and Mannon over sticky notes and the fact that students protested at an assembly in November in which Musil spoke played no role in the decision not to rehire Musil.
Skinkis said that although the first part of the meeting focused on Musil, they also discussed other student concerns. The students and administrators agreed to meet again.
“It was a very positive discussion and we’re going to continue these dialogues going forward,” Skinkis said.
Junior Casey Whisler, one of the students who met with the administrators, said the school officials discussed in general terms the issues they had with Musil.
“They were talking about the discussion pattern in her classroom having to do with reproductive rights and her support of things like Black Lives Matter and discussing that with students,” Whisler said. “They thought that was unprofessional. And obviously, the majority of the students disagrees with that, considering all the support we’ve had.
“It seemed a lot like that they were catering to the more, kind of conservative students in the fact that a lot of Ms. Musil’s views that they were viewing as unprofessional were really just accepting students and expressing a more liberal standpoint on things. They thought that she was being too political when they were discussing those things.”
Skinkis praised the students for their behavior during the sit-in.
“I want to commend the students that did participate for their respectful behavior and they acted very mature and responsible,” Skinkis said. “It was not unruly. … We wanted to give them a chance to express their concerns and I think everybody’s learned from this situation and we’ll continue to move forward.”
Skinkis noted that the overwhelming majority of RBHS students did not participate in the sit in, saying, “1,400, 1500 students were still participating in their classes,” Skinkis said.
Students who missed classes to participate in the sit in were given unexcused absences.
Skinkis said that the administration received some supportive telephone calls.
“We did get a couple of calls of support today from parents,” Skinkis said.
Whisler said that she thought the sit-in and the subsequent discussion with administrators accomplished many of the goals the students had set.
“I definitely think it was a success,” Whisler said. “I think that a lot of students felt ignored when all of our support of Musil kind of went unnoticed at the board meeting as it was a 7 to 0 vote.
“Our goal was to show the administration that when issues are important to us, we’re not going to be silent about them. … I also think that we found a jumping off point for improving communication between the staff and students that will prevent issues like this from happening again.”