Protestors And Schools On Collision Course

Eamonn Houston, March 21st 2003, Derry Journal

THE DERRY anti-war coalition and local school principals were locked on a collision course last night amid claims that some students who attended yesterday's protest against the war in Iraq could face disciplinary action.

As the slide towards war in the Persian Gulf gathered pace in early March, the Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools disseminated a letter advising school heads of the issues thrown up by war. The most pressing issue for the CCMS is a school's duty of care to its pupils. Yesterday veteran antiwar campaigner and journalist, Eamonn McCann, launched a broadside on local schools from a platform in the Guildhall Square.

Scores of pupils from a number of schools in Derry joined the hastily organised anti-war demonstration, following the first military strikes by America and Britain on Iraq. Mr. McCann, addressing the protesters, said: "We have been told that some of the students here have been threatened with disciplinary action. It would be an outrage if schools carried through this threat of disciplinary action on any student who is here today in the Guildhall Square. "They should proud of the fact that they have associated themselves with this. The schools should be proud of them and Derry should be proud of them." Mr. McCann told the cheering crowds that the second Gulf War in 12 years had been declared against the will of many. He issued the rallying call, "not in our name".

Hundreds of students, anti-war campaigners and workers marched on the Guildhall Square to voice disgust at the outbreak of hostilities. They vowed to take to the streets in colourful and noisy protest for the duration of the conflict. Mr. McCann described the American administration as a gathering of "religious fundamentalists, far right ideologies".

In a letter sent to schools in recent weeks, Donal Flanagan, Chief Executive of the CCMS, outlined the potential problems that schools face in the current climate. "The Council is aware of the impact which the organised and widespread protest against the potential war in the Middle East is having on young people and the consequent action which is beginning to manifest itself in schools," the letter states.

"Clearly there are a range of issues surrounding this matter, not least of which is the right to protest, the morality of war and the health and safety of children.” Mr. Flanagan urges Principals to inform parents that it is not permissible for students to leave school without written requests from parents. He told the Journal last night that the way in which the protest issue is handled is left to the discretion of individual schools. “The safety of the children is paramount".

Dame Geraldine Keegan, the Principal of St. Mary's girls College in Creggan, told the 'Journal' that she is following the advice of the CCMS: "We consider as a Catholic school the importance of prayer. We decided that pupils in every classroom would say the rosary at 11:45pm. We are concerned that we have a duty of care and the children have a right to education," Miss Keegan said. Mayor of Derry Kathleen McCloskey praised the turnout at the demonstration. "Today's protest is a sign of the depth of feeling, particularly among young people, against the war on Iraq. This encouraging display of solidarity with the values of peace and the protection of innocent lives is admirable."

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