By Alison Dellit
CANBERRA — Classes at Telopea Park High were disrupted for three days last week as students organised and joined in protests sparked by France's decision to resume nuclear testing.
The controversy began on June 16, when about 200 students spontaneously sat down during the playing on the French national anthem at assembly. Telopea is a bilingual school which teaches in French and English; a number of French students attend. Both the Australian and the French anthems are played at assembly.
Students say they were accused by the school principal of being racist and bigoted; some were even threatened with suspension. This led to another student sit-in — in the principal's office in the afternoon of June 19. The students demanded an apology but were refused. They then organised a sit-down outside the school on June 20 and 21 involving some 300 students.
The students demanded that the principal apologise, and also that an independent mediator be brought in to resolve the dispute.
Karen Aguilera, a student at Telopea, told Green Left Weekly, "[The principal] called us racist and immature, then said she didn't. We just wanted to show our anger. If the bombs are safe why don't they explode them in France? Nuclear testing is wrong."
During the sit-out, meetings were organised by the students to discuss the issues and what they should do. Petitions against nuclear testing were passed around and passing cars acknowledged the "honk against nuclear testing" placards.
The stalemate ended half way through June 21 when student representatives met with the education minister, Bill Stefaniak. Agreement was reached on an independent mediator and a return to classes. The protests are continuing at recess and lunch.
The school has decided to stop playing either anthem. This was not one of the students' demands. According to Aguilera, "We want them to keep playing the anthem. People can make the choice whether they want to stand or not. That's our form of protest."
The high school action has polarised Canberra. Stefaniak accused the Telopea protest of being controlled by the socialist youth group Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party. The claim that the students were manipulated is outrageous, Resistance spokesperson Sarah Stephen told Green Left Weekly.
"We support the actions the students have taken, and have helped them when we could", Stephens said. "However, the students themselves decided on the course of action to take. Stefaniak is simply trying to divert attention away from the real issue — as the school has done.
"The facts are that the students were denied their democratic right to protest, and they responded by organising, and very successfully so, a protest. Many students are very angry about Stefaniak's allegations, because he tried to make out that they did not organise themselves and were not aware of what they were doing."