Almost 200 students walked out of class Wednesday morning at Hamilton High School to protest the recent suspension of their principal under the cloud of an emerging grading scandal in Shelby County Schools.
By the end of the day, the school had a new interim leader as a result of their peaceful action.
The walkout began about 10 a.m. and continued through the morning as students held up signs that read “Justice for Principal Smith” and chanted “We want answers” and “We want Smith.”
Principal Monekea Smith was suspended from the Memphis school without pay in late December after investigators found that improper grade changes happened under her watch.
“We just want to know why (she was suspended),” said student body president Danyell McAdams, who organized the protest. “I’ll (walk out) every day until it gets hot, and then I’ll just take the coat off.”
Students told reporters that they want clarity on whether Smith will be fired or will return to their school, where she has been at the helm since 2015.
“She was like a mother to us. She took care of us,” McAdams said.
The protest ended around 1 p.m. when students returned to class after meeting with Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.
Shelby County Schools announced later that Elvin Bell, an assistant principal at Hamilton, will replace Vince Thompson as interim principal and that Thompson will offer support during the transition. District spokeswoman Natalia Powers noted that Bell already has a relationship with the school’s students.
“Shelby County Schools respects every student’s right to free speech and expression,” Powers said. “However, we cannot support any actions that disrupt the important teaching and learning taking place on our campuses during the school day. We are hopeful that after meeting with school and District leaders today students have a better understanding of this situation and realize our top priority is to make sure they are supported.”
An investigation began last year at Trezevant High School when its former principal noticed discrepancies between transcripts and report cards. A coach and a secretary have been dismissed there after investigators found evidence of wrongdoing, but the suspension of Hamilton’s principal was the first personnel decision to affect other schools.
Hamilton had not been mentioned in almost 300 pages of final reports from investigators hired to look into the matter. They found 10 high schools with high rates of grade changes and are following up with a deeper investigation of those. However, Hamilton was cited in a draft report from Ed Stanton, the former U.S. attorney who led one investigation, according to a high-level source familiar with the report. Stanton’s team found grading changes at Hamilton and recommended further investigation, but the recommendation never made it into the final report.
The leader of one advocacy group praised Hamilton’s students for taking peaceful action on Wednesday.
“We want to stress the importance of student voice in education conversations,” said Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, an organization working with Hamilton student leaders. “The demonstration shows that students have critical positions and see issues firsthand.”
Calls to the school’s interim principal, Vince Thompson, were not immediately returned.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the time that the protest ended as well as an SCS statement.