About 250 students gathered Thursday along Little Falls Road across from Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School to protest the firing of a teacher who has had a deep and lasting impact on those he taught — and even those he didn't.
John Harrison, an attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, until this week taught world history and practical law at Bishop O'Connell. He also was the moderator for the SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) club, a mentor, and had a reputation among students as someone they could talk to when they were distressed.
"He literally is the face of our high school," said Julie Olafsson, a 17-year-old junior from McLean who organized today's demonstration. "He's like a father to all of us. It didn't matter if you had him as a teacher or not — every student was affected by him."
Fliers were posted around the school this week proclaiming "It's a SADD day to be a Knight."
"He taught life lessons as well as school lessons," said student Andrew Duesterhaus, whose uncle — Vienna native Tom Duesterhaus — has been missing since being let go from the school in June 2011.
Harrison told Patch that in the last few years, Bishop O'Connell has lost a significant number of teachers. Some, like Duesterhaus, found their contracts wouldn't be renewed, or were simply fired; others felt they needed to leave since Katy Prebble became school president about two years ago, he said.
"It used to be a truly mystical place to teach," Harrison said. "It was absolutely unbelievably good … until she came."
It was the handful of teachers who had been fired that led students to organize, Olafsson said.
Michael J. Donohue, a spokesman for the Arlington Diocese, which operates Bishop O'Connell, told Patch, "The school is not going to discuss individual personnel matters. Contracts are renewed or not renewed all the time in schools."
Earlier this week, students planned to get together in the school's quad — only to find their way blocked, Olafsson said. They decided to go to the school's chapel, where they began to pray and recite the rosary. Prebble and Principal Joseph Vorbach made the students leave, she said.
"That's not the way O'Connell is run," Harrison said. "If a student asks to go to the clinic or to the chapel, you give them a pass. Period. You don't ask any questions. You don't do anything. You just let them go. And you don't interrupt people praying."
A group of 10 to 20 students made their way to Harrison's class — a few belonged there, others didn't. School officials eventually forced them to return to the classes they were supposed to be in.
Later that day, Harrison said, he was fired.
"They said it was unprofessional to find out what was bothering these kids before kicking them out of my class — it was unprofessional to allow them to stay," Harrison said. "I think it's unprofessional to send away a student that's exhibiting distress. And you ask 100 teachers, they'll tell you the same thing: You don't abandon kids."
In the last 24 hours, more than 2,000 people have joined a school alumni Facebook page created specifically to oppose Harrison being fired. Friends and former students have pledged their support, their prayers and, in some cases, their pocketbooks to help cover an age discrimination lawsuit Harrison has said he will file.
Others posted that they would stop sending alumni contributions to the school.
On the page, Harrison posted he and another teacher were let go in order to be replaced by two young assistant football coaches who needed classes to helm.
Harrison told Patch the assistant coach taking over his practical law class is 22 years old — and while he may be a nice guy, the class has traditionally been taught by experienced lawyers.
"You can't get the way that course is supposed to be taught by reading a textbook," he said.
Police cars, motorcycles and dogs were present on Little Falls Road for Thursday's hour-long protest, Olafsson said.
Some students carried banners. Some wore duct tape over their mouths to symbolize the school's attempts to silence them. Both Olafsson and Harrison told Patch seniors were told they would not be allowed to walk at graduation and that student athletes were told they would be removed from their teams if either group participated.
"They picked the wrong teacher to mess with — and the wrong student body. Because we will not silenced," Olafsson said.
Students understand school officials can decide not to renew the contracts of more experienced teachers, who have higher salaries, and replace them with younger instructors in order to save money, Olafsson said. But that doesn't make it right, she said.
The school has declined to discuss the matter with students because it involves personnel.
"We can't really get an explanation as to why they're letting these teachers go. But what they're doing is unfair and unjust," Olafsson said. "Age discrimination is something that should not be tolerated."
Donohue sent the following statement to Patch from the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools and O'Connell High School’s board of governors:
“The Office of Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Arlington and the Board of Governors of Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School fully and completely support the school's administration as it continues its effort to create the best possible educational environment for all of its students.
We understand the difficulty of change, but acknowledge that change must occur so that the school can flourish and move forward in meeting present and future educational needs.
With thanks for the tremendous support that the O’Connell community has had for this school’s fine past, we ask that the community now join forces to shape an even greater future.”
Donohue said the school wouldn't comment beyond that.
Olafsson said students were determined to get Harrison reinstated at O'Connell High School.
Harrison said, "The only thing I want to do is go back and teach school." But he wasn't overly optimistic.
"The church is not a big fan of pressure from below," he said. "But the bishop is an honorable man, and I think he'll see that O'Connell is broken right now."
Harrison said he didn't think it would be appropriate for him to attend Thursday's protest. But students sent him photos and videos and he said he was "stunned."
"The kids just did an incredible job," he said. "They're clearly upset. I'm upset. And I think we have reason to be."