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King College Prep students walk out in third clash with embattled new principal

King College Prep Walkout

Junior Class President Jonathan Williams, Jr. speaks to classmates during a Dec., 20, 2018 walkout at King College Prep. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Students at King College Prep High School staged a sit-in Thursday, the latest in a string of incidents where students, parents and even some school staff are voicing opposition to actions taken by the newly appointed principal.

Thursday’s demonstration, which ended with about 50 students marching out of the building, was the third since school started in September. Student organizers said they’re opposing recent policy changes enacted by Principal Melanie Beatty-Sevier, who joined the school in July from the now-shuttered Robeson High School.

Students and parents gathered outside the school pointed to changes made to the dress code policy, which first drew controversy in August. Remarks Beatty-Sevier made about the dress code at a Local School Council meeting saying “sexual abuse cases throughout the city of Chicago” motivated her to bar students from dressing “provocatively” were recorded by a parent who played them at a meeting of Chicago’s Board of Education.

CPS issued a statement at the time, saying the district “strongly disagrees with Principal Beatty-Sevier’s comments” and would determine “appropriate disciplinary options.”

RELATED: Is dress-code flap at King College Prep really just about the clothes kids wear?

New complaints brought by students and parents Thursday centered on Beatty-Sevier’s shortening of the school building’s hours and limiting student access to the school’s media center earlier this year. The selective enrollment school has more than 500 students and is rated Level 1, the district’s second-highest rating.

“Our media center acted as our library — we no longer have our library,” said Devonna Portwood, 18, King’s senior class president. “We are forced into a small classroom of only 30 computers, only four of which can print. So the whole student body squeezing into this small room is not working, and [Beatty-Sevier] is not doing anything to give us our library back.”

Portwood said students have been barred from accessing the media center outside of classroom time after a video surfaced showing a student attempting to climb a bookshelf in the media center. Students said they can only access the media center as part of a computer lab class or if they are working on a research project. Otherwise, they have are forced to use the small classroom.

Portwood said access to school computers is vital for students, especially seniors, who rely on them for college and scholarship applications and research.

“We don’t have a counselor, and for seniors, we are just lost trying to figure out this college stuff. We need support and we just don’t have it,” Portwood said. “We are out here fighting for better education, these adults aren’t listening to us.”

Class President Devonna Portwood (front) | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

In an email sent to CPS CEO Janice Jackson Thursday, King College Prep Local School Council Chairman Jonathan Williams argued the changes to school hours “put my son in harm’s way.” In past years students could stick around at the school until 6 p.m. or later until their parents picked them up after work, students said.

“He has been forced to leave the building before 4 p.m. on occasion with no notice or planning,” Williams said. “This is true for hundreds of students at King. This is not right.”

A teacher, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, said about 100 seniors were gathered for an impromptu “town hall meeting” Wednesday afternoon, where Beatty-Sevier warned that students who engaged in the protest would be barred from an upcoming field trip to the restaurant-arcade Dave and Busters.

“These are students who, a lot of them are going to be first-generation high school graduates and some first-generation college students, so when they hear someone of power threatening their future, it can be scary,” the teacher said. “I haven’t been talking to [students], but if I was, I would not encourage them to participate in the sit-in.”

Beatty-Sevier did not respond to multiple requests for comment. CPS issued a statement assuring that disciplinary consequences would not be issued as long as the demonstration does not disrupt classroom learning.

“Empowering student voices is a priority at CPS, and the district is working closely with the school to ensure students have an opportunity to express themselves in a safe and respectful environment with minimal disruption to classroom learning,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement.

CPS did not respond to a request for an update on the disciplinary options being evaluated for Beatty-Sevier’s remarks about the school’s dress code policy.

“It has been a very tumultuous, stressful school year that started pretty much in the summer,” Natasha Erskine, a King parent and member of its local school council, said. “Students feel like [Beatty-Sevier] has come in with a heavy hand, she doesn’t make herself available. They feel like school is jail.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.