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Jefferson High students protest closed-campus policy

Teens say embattled principal Leon Dudley hasn't kept promises

Dozens of students walked off the Jefferson High School campus in North Portland at lunchtime Thursday to protest the administration's closed-campus policy - the latest assault on Principal Leon Dudley's leadership since his arrival last fall from Dallas.

Leon Dudley, recruited by a national search to reform the struggling school, had implemented the policy upon his arrival to cut back on truant and tardy students. He said having students eat lunch in the cafeteria rather than leave campus was a reasonable policy that would be bolstered by different menu options and activities during the lunch hour.

But students who protested the changes said none of those promises have been delivered, and they feel like they're in 'prison.'

'I think (the administrators) don't know what they're doing now, and need a strategy, not a strategy for a prison,' sophomore Brittany Browning said as she walked off campus to 'hang out and chill,' as she does every day. She said she returns to class after lunch and is a good student, and doesn't feel her freedom should be taken away.

Several students walked off campus, while others hung out on the football field and track, celebrating the sunny afternoon. There were no signs, chants or organized message delivered.

'At the high school level, you don't know what students are actually upset and what students are taking advantage' of the walkout, said Matt Shelby, a Portland Public Schools administrator who came out to watch.

Shelby added that the district's policy on student walkouts is to encourage them to express themselves, as long as they're not disrupting classroom time. At Da Vinci Arts Middle School recently, students staged a protest of proposed staff cuts, and staff accompanied them and then saw that they returned to class. Shelby said that Kristi Obbink, the district's food services director, would visit the Jefferson campus next week to talk about food options.

At Jefferson, security guards mingled with students near the campus, asking to see some of their IDs, which they're required to wear on lanyards. Many students pulled them out of their backpacks or pockets, saying that this rule and others - banning cell phones, iPods, hats and hoods - are unevenly enforced.

One new concern surfaced during the walkout: Several Hispanic students said they felt undermined by administrators on campus. 'It's all about the African American students here,' said Dennise Zavala, a sophomore. 'We're working our butts off, getting good grades. ... I was at Marshall last year. It was different. Jefferson feels like a jail.'

During the walkout, Dudley was at an all-principals meeting off campus. But he and the three other Jefferson campus administrators had apparently heard about the walkout beforehand and responded in a memo written a day earlier.

'The administration is aware of the concerns and displeasure for some policies that have been enforced this school year ,and we have created opportunities for students to positively advocate for themselves with the ability to see change,' the memo reads.

It goes on to note a 'Lunch Jones' forum that will take place next week, created to 'allow students a way to express their concerns in a structured format and a defined process to explore the issues brought to the table.'

The administrators said they had scheduled time to meet with the student leadership team on Friday, if not earlier. And they noted that students may use a suggestion box in the main office.

Yet those opportunities aren't enough for some students, who are rankled by more than just the closed-campus policy. Dissatisfaction over Dudley's policies, actions and leadership style has been simmering among teachers and students since his arrival.

Last month, students repeatedly booed Dudley off the stage at an assembly, after which he canceled a dance - yet he said the cancellation was not in retaliation for the booing.

Students have said Dudley threatened to cancel their prom, and many students are uneasy with his presence after allegations of racial and sexual harassment surfaced in a grievance filed by his personal secretary, Kathy Muir, in December. That complaint was dismissed, and Muir was reassigned to work in the district's central office.

Before Dudley came to Portland, there were red flags in his past that caused some to be wary but others - including Superintendent Vicki Phillips - to champion his qualifications and give him the benefit of the doubt.

In Dallas, Dudley was accused of using his district-issued credit card to buy the basketball team a $900 steak dinner after a state championship game. In Salem, teachers took a vote of no confidence against him, saying he lacked professionalism, after which he abruptly resigned just before the school year started.

Jefferson's 650 students are divided into two small academies, one focused on arts and technology and and the other on science and technology. Next year, the school is slated to open two additional academies, one for boys and one for girls. Recruitment is underway.

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