Peaceful protest against silent lunch teaches Bristol students important lessons

BRISTOL — Bristol Elementary School sixth-graders got a civics lesson last week when their respectfully conducted protests changed school policy.
“I’ve learned that if something doesn’t feel right to you or if you don’t like a rule then you should tell someone or you should possibly try to change that rule, like what we did,” said Bristol sixth-grader Kaia Companion, one of the protesters.
“We didn’t like the rule, so we tried to change it. And it worked out because we kept trying. It was mostly because we didn’t give up and we kept trying and then they finally decided to change it.”
School began this year with a new policy requiring kids to be silent for a good part of their lunch period. A red cup placed on your lunch table meant no talking at all. A yellow cup meant quiet talking only. Lunch, like recess, being an important time for kids to let off steam and connect with friends, many students found this system both punitive and oppressive, or, as a kid might put it, not fun and not fair.
Parents began voicing their own concerns that the policy was overly rigid, restrictive and controlling. Bridget Companion and Melissa Deas were among several parents who left messages about the policy on the Front Porch Forum online message board, and both communicated with the Independent.
“Children already have to accomplish so many restrictions of what comes natural to them so they can be in school,” Deas said in a posting. “Why add to the restrictions unnecessarily?”
“I’ve always told my child that the time to talk and be social is during lunch and recess,” Companion said in her posting. “I was disturbed and shocked when I found this out.”
Recently, students began their own protest. Using morning free time, students made anti-red cup posters: simple drawings of a red cup with a slash drawn through it. Students took their posters to the lunchroom and the silent protest against silent lunch began.
“We started to make anti-red cup posters and hold them up for the 10 minutes of no talking. We stopped eating in the lunchroom and started eating outside at the picnic tables during recess,” said sixth-grader Alex Yaggy, who was one of the leaders of the movement. “We will stand up for what we believe in and not stop peacefully protesting until the no-talking at lunch rules stop.”
And stop they did.
Thursday morning, Bristol Elementary Principal Sandy Jump called a meeting with the fifth- and sixth-graders to let them know that she had changed the rules.
“Now there are no cups, so that’s good,” said Kaia. “And we can talk the whole time but it has to be quieter in the first five minutes because they have to give the hot lunch to the kids. Then once everyone has their lunch, we can talk louder. And the same goes for the last five minutes, you have to be quieter for the last five minutes.”
At press time, Jump had not responded to phone and email requests to explain the school’s rationale and its goals for the silent lunch policy.
SILENT LUNCH ELSEWHERE
Some Middlebury parents, however, will remember that Mary Hogan Elementary School had a similar policy for a number of years. As in Bristol, the school was concerned about noise levels, which can rapidly accelerate in the kind of gym cum lunchroom found at many grade schools.
Mary Hogan Principal Tom Buzzell explained that at that time the school was engaged in a difficult balancing act. It was concerned about kids eating lunch, concerned about kids getting time to relax and socialize, concerned about how overpoweringly loud the room could get during some lunch periods, and concerned about kids whose sensory issues made the noise levels over-stimulating.
Some kids asked for more quiet lunch, said Buzzell, while others were upset about having to be quiet.
“I certainly heard from those students who felt, ‘We’d really like to be able to talk, and we don’t think it’s fair that we can’t,’ so it was two-part,” Buzzell said, adding that there was also an issue with the lunchroom itself.
Eventually Mary Hogan dropped its silent lunch policy and instead addressed the problem by better sound proofing the large multipurpose room where lunch is held. According to Buzzell, the original architectural and engineering specs to mitigate sound had been cut when the building was constructed to save money for taxpayers, leaving no soundproofing whatsoever in the cavernous multipurpose room.
Now there is a sound-absorbing fibrous material sprayed onto the room’s ceiling. This year, Mary Hogan will continue to improve the acoustics by installing sound absorbing panels on the walls.
Buzzell noted that getting acoustics right in large rooms like school gyms/cafeterias can be a challenge, even for acoustics experts, because there are so many variables: number of kids,  number of tables, type of tables, type of activity, even the age of the kids having lunch. For example, lunch periods for third- and fourth-graders are the loudest because they’re “practicing their talking,” which is Buzzell’s 350-lunch-duties-a-year way of describing that age group’s exuberant conversation style that involves more talking than listening.
Back in Bristol, parent Bridget Companion is really proud of her daughter for standing up for what she thought was fair and doing it respectfully and peacefully.
“I told Kaia when she got home, I was so proud of how they went about it in a mature way for their age,” she told the Independent. “It was just amazing. It boggled my mind.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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