Over 100 Great Bend High School students converged in front of the USD 428 District Offices Monday afternoon. They were there to demand justice for a classmate that was allegedly sexually assaulted on the school activity bus returning home from a swim meet on Saturday, Feb. 6.
First, they gathered at the First Assembly of God Church on South Patton after school to rally for a protest march prepared for and planned over the weekend, following a week of disturbing revelations. Not only had they learned of the assault, news media reported the lawyer of one victim had stated the district had only disciplined two of four students alleged to have taken part in the assault. The other two, both of whom had qualified to compete at state, would be allowed to attend the upcoming meet as students in good standing.
Students, many dressed in neon colored t-shirts, lined both sides of US 56, holding signs asking for “justice” and that “our voices matter.”
Earlier that day, USD 428 District Superintendent Brad Reed called a press conference at the District Office to make a statement concerning the case. After the press conference ended, student leaders gathered the group near the parking lot of the church for a prayer led by Tony Mercer, student pastor, and then marched the quarter mile to the USD 428 District Office where they were met by Reed.
According to some students, earlier that day they had been informed by teachers and administrators at the school that they would not be allowed on the district office property, and risked at detention if they crossed onto the property.
“It doesn’t seem that the district office has handled this very well,” she said. Alicia Peshka, a mother of a Great Bend High School student. She confirmed her daughter had been asked to remove her neon shirt and told she risked detention if she left early. She went to the high school and had her daughter excused and accompanied her to the protest.
“I think these kids have something to say, and they just want everyone to hear them,” she said. “This isn’t right and they don’t want their friends or anyone else to ever have to experience anything like this, because this goes above and beyond bullying--way above bullying.”
Questions go unanswered
In order to comply with the administration’s rules, students marched up to the edge of the parking lot and stopped. Reed met them there, where they delivered their message. While he would not respond to their requests for justice, he did acknowledge that protest is their right in a democratic society.
Referring to the alleged incident, a student asked Reed why more was not being done to ensure further attacks did not happen.
“This is not the place or the time for that conversation,” Reed responded.
However, Reed did have a brief conversation with the parents of one victim who were there. He asked if they would like to talk in a short while at his office. They asked if he would talk with them at their lawyer’s office, but he refused. Their lawyer advised them against speaking with him at his office also. While the family has been dealing with a wide range of emotions over the past week, she said following the press conference that day, she was now experiencing outrage and disappointment, and that he had lied in the press conference. She also said that day was the first interaction she’d had with him because up until then, he had refused to return her phone calls.
Students cross the line
A short time later, students crossed the highway and rallied on the east side. Then, linking arms, they crossed the highway again, intending to enter the district office.
This prompted Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir and officers to act. Some students who had made it into the building were rounded up and peacefully exited, while others were stopped before entering. Then, students returned to the parking lot where Reed instructed them that trespassing would not be tolerated. The doors to the building were locked.
Parents of some of the students who were there voiced their opinion.
“You should be proud that these students are taking a stand against bullying and supporting their teammate,” one unidentified parent said.
Students gathered around Reed, “We want justice,” and then two students made another attempt at entering the building. Finding the doors locked, they sat on the ground in front of them. They were soon joined by several other students. Ignoring pleas from law enforcement to remove themselves from the property, they instead took photos with their cell phones and refused to move.
Reed implored them to leave, and again students refused. Finally, he warned them that if they did not move by the time he counted to three, he would have the Sheriff arrest them for trespassing. The students continued to defy him. Three students were then arrested, handcuffed and removed.
“What I don’t understand is why a student can get arrested for trespassing for ten seconds, but the students that hurt my friend are allowed to walk away from the scene of their crime,” said Lakin Pafford, one of the three.
Gina Marie Dureen, another of the three, stated she was arrested for standing up for what she believes.
“I think the boys that sexually assaulted that other boy should be expelled because that other boy is probably afraid to go back to school,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to go back to school if somebody had did that to me.”
A parent implored the kids to return to the church. Two men also attempted to convince the students to move to a different location, but then a verbal altercation between them and Reed ensued.
“I walked up there to help get the kids off the steps, and I get called an (expletive) idiot,” he said. “Saying that to a forty-year-old man, that doesn’t set a good example for the kids.”
He claims he and another parent were attempting to get the kids to leave before arrests were made.
Students say attempts made to quiet
Shortly after Reed entered the building, the crowd began to break up. Law enforcement continued to be a presence until the remaining students returned to the First Assembly of God church. They continued to hold up posters and elicit support from drivers who honked as they passed. As the crowd cleared the parking lot, the students who had been detained were released and told no charges would be pressed.
Students taking part expressed frustration in the administration at the high school who sought to quell the protest earlier in the day by informing the students that leaving school early would result in detention, and many were asked to remove shirts they had made in support of their classmate. Fliers the students had posted were torn down, and those being distributed were taken away.
Students also reported the administration had attempted to tear up posters some students had brought to the school. One senior said she had not crossed the property line at the District Office because she had been informed by teachers that if she did, she would not be allowed to walk at graduation. GBHS Principal Tim Friess could could not be reached for comment Monday.
At the church, students who lingered to protest were offered bottles of water by the Great Bend Police Department. Soon after the protest ended peacefully.