Plunge in pond sparks #freebyrd movement

Plunge in pond sparks #freebyrd movement

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Protesters gather across from the street from the school Wednesday.

Story by Emily Hoover, Carlye Hudspeth, Daniel Pellegrin, Staff Reporters

Since senior Austin Byrd took a plunge into the pond on Tuesday during the annual Canterbury Festival, classmates have dived into a movement that they say goes beyond one student’s punishment.

“It started out as Austin, but it’s grown into a united front,” senior Matt Cox said. “It’s not about the punishment anymore, it’s about fighting the wrongs, like not being allowed to wear a shirt or say the word Freebyrd. It’s been building for a while and it’s finally time for us to get our opinions and voice out there.”

Byrd dove head first into the pond after encouragement from classmates. He initially said his punishment would consist of three days suspension, 20 days DAEP, and a ticket for disturbing class. Students came together in protest of a punishment they believed to be excessive.

Administrators, however, say that this is based on misinformation, though they can’t comment on any specifics about a student’s discipline.

“I believe the misinformation was spread through social media outlets from people who did not have direct involvement with the situation,” principal Brad Bailey said.

Within moments of Byrd’s suspension from school, social media sites were bombarded with angry comments, rumors and protest plans. Within a few hours, the majority of the school knew what had happened, orders were being taken for T-shirts, and the movement had a name: #Freebyrd.

“The shirts and groups and tweets are to let administration know that we are a student body with feelings and every single decision they make directly affects every single one of us,” senior Emily Speer said. “The students feel like they are taking advantage of us. We want to be heard, and we will be heard.”

Administrators are doing what they can to try to open the lines of communication between themselves and the students.

“We will begin to have more discussions with students and look at developing a student advisory group,” Bailey said. “We want all of our students to enjoy their high school years and have positive memories of THS.”

Students who came to school Wednesday with Freebyrd written on themselves, their clothing or on their vehicles were asked to remove the writing or be sent home.

“I came to school with ‘freebyrd’ on my car, and I was asked to clean it or leave, so I chose to leave,” said senior Cari Cunningham, student body president. “[The administration doesn’t] need to tell us we can’t say ‘freebyrd’ because [they] draw massive amounts of attention to it. It’s about us not having a voice for the last year, and the car paint and T-shirts are a part of that voice.”

Many of those who were suspended or chose to leave for the day protested across the street in front of the high school.

“[I was initially suspended] because I had ‘Freebyrd’ on my hands and the First and Eighth Amendment on my purse,” senior Kait Richardson said. “They told me that writing on my hands was ‘disturbing the peace,’ and they asked me if I had anything threatening in my purse. Because I wouldn’t wash my hands or open up my purse for them, I was against compliance. I was suspended for three days.”

However, some students within the #FREEBYRD movement think that the methods used were inappropriate.

“If the protest was more organized, I would support it more,” senior Sherry Phillips said. “There’s many things wrong with the school and faculty. If they’d only put some thought process into the situation, it’d really be easy to pick out obvious fixable flaws. Instead, we have people screaming, writing slander, and just acting childish for fun. These kids need to be tutored on how to protest peacefully and properly without resorting to idiocy.”

On Wednesday morning, school officials found areas of the campus had been vandalized with graffiti.

“We had some individuals get on campus and vandalize some of the areas of the school,” Bailey said. “[It] is very disappointing for the students who show pride in our school to have our restrooms or parts of our school building defaced.”

Senior Sam Vaughn, though in support of the movement, wished it would’ve been handled differently.

“If played correctly, we could have shown the administration that when faced with something that the student body deems as wrong, we could voice our opinion in an educated and mature way,” Vaughn said. “In return we could gain respect and probably a voice in future decisions. But in reality, we fell short [because of] the whooping and hollering in the halls, the booing at administrators when they took away a brave student and the general idiocy from the majority of the patrons. They did not think their ideas through, making this protest look immature and silly.”

Bailey met with a leadership class Wednesday afternoon to dispel some of the rumors and give students a chance to air their concerns.

“My intent was to listen and have a good dialogue in a positive setting that would encourage students to discuss their views,” Bailey said.

Students say that the movement has now become more about First Amendment rights.

“I support the First Amendment and our freedom of speech,” junior Morgan Norfleet said. “I find administration being a tad bit too restrictive on our First Amendment; the school can have its limitations, but we should have the right to say ‘freebyrd’ if we want.”

David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, said students should be able to express their views concerning school policies, just as long as they go about it in a non-hostile way.

“To me, the students should be able to wear the shirt and protest the severity of the punishment,” Hudson said. “Under the Tinker standard, school officials must be able to reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption or material interference of school activities. They can’t punish speech just because they don’t like it or because it criticizes school policy or action. As one court has said, ‘Disliking student speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting it under Tinker.’”

Bailey said that after meeting with students, they decided to allow students to wear #FREEBYRD T-shirts and have car paint.

“After the discussion with our students and re-evaluating the situation, we believed that as long as the shirts or writing on the cars did not disrupt the educational process of the school, was not vulgar or profane, does not pose a safety threat, and was not degrading to another individual, we would allow this at school,” Bailey said. “When we have students yelling in the parking lots, hallways, cafeteria, etc., this disrupts our school and this is something we cannot have.”

Byrd returned to school Thursday after he said his suspension was reduced to two days. He has to serve 10 days in ISS and has received a ticket for Disruption of Class, a class C misdemeanor that has a fine between $100-$250.

The ticket can remain on Byrd’s record and requires him to go before a judge.

Because he is still a secondary school student, Byrd has the option to go to Teen Court to wave his fine in exchange for community service and expunge the offense from his record, said Teen Court Commissioner Judy Dempsey.

When Byrd walked through the halls of the school Thursday, he was approached by students in support of the movement.

“Getting to school was a lot of fun,” Byrd said, “…seeing my friends, getting congratulated by random people, and hearing the occasional ‘freebyrd’ from the hallway in the dead silicone of the ISS room.”

The incident has become widespread, being picked up by local media outlets, as well as national news branches, like CNN iReport. And it certainly made the school week different.

“When the rumors first went around about [Byrd’s] punishment, I thought it was overly excessive and a bit harsh, but after we met with Mr. Bailey and heard his side of it, we knew that it was just a big miscommunication on everyone’s part,” senior Abbey Norwood said. “I have a better understanding of their side and their reasons for having to crackdown on everything. It has made school really fun, though.”