On the coldest day of the year, more than 200 Martin Luther King High School students walked out of their classes yesterday morning to protest what they contend is the continued cold treatment they receive from the school's security force.
They massed on the Stenton Avenue sidewalk in front of the school holding sharply worded signs such as, "We are not criminals, we are kids! Stop the Abuse." They chanted, "No justice, no peace!" And they sang a song of protest closely associated with their school's namesake: "We Shall Overcome."
Passing motorists honked their horns in support while School District of Philadelphia police officers stood watch but did little else throughout the hourlong demonstration.
Student organizers kept the crowd out of the street and on the sidewalk, determined that the event would be orderly and peaceful.
"I feel like it's turning out very well," said Aliho Walker, a 17-year-old senior who is president of King's student body. "No violence. Everybody is listening. We have a strong crowd out here."
The decision to protest was made following a violent clash Wednesday involving star quarterback Aleem Marshall and a handful of school police officers and one city officer.
"I'm out here because Aleem Marshall was brutally beaten and he was not the first," said Sevon Rainford, 18, a senior. "We are trying to go about this in a nonviolent way with words and peace."
Aleem, 18, said that after he was wrongly accused of throwing paper at a school officer, he was taken to the security office and attacked there by the officers and sprayed with mace.
"I want justice," he said during the protest, which he attended with his father. "I think we need a whole new school police force. I just don't want to be scared in the hallway."
He was arrested Wednesday and charged with disorderly conduct for which he has a February 24 court date, according to his mother, Joann Marshall.
James Golden, the district's chief safety executive, said Aleem had provoked the confrontation and had punched one of the officers in the chest and shouted that he would kill the officers.
Golden, who monitored yesterday's protest, said he has no proof that King's security force is abusive or otherwise inappropriate with the school's 1,500 students.
King's student body, as well as the school police force, is virtually all African-American. The school has been plagued by disruptive student behavior, complaints of heavy-handed security and low test scores for years.
"We're talking with student leaders and others with regard to their issues and there will be a series of discussions concerning their complaints," Golden said.
Of the protest, Golden observed: "It's a peaceful protest. Students were orderly and conducted themselves in a manner that minimized risk. The overall assessment is that it was a civil and orderly demonstration."
Still, like Martin Luther King himself, the students faced consequences for staging the protest.
Sherrine Wilkins, an official with Foundations Inc., the organization that manages the school, said all of the students who participated will have to serve one day of detention and Aleem was suspended from school for two days.
The punishment, she said, was the result of a compromise with the students.