Students in Mr. Collins' government class at Simi High School are big fans of the U.S. Constitution.
But these days, their classroom discussions often stray from the subject of the 200-year-old document. An atmosphere of debate dominates as the students gripe about shortened lunch periods, locked bathrooms and parking restrictions. Inevitably, the discourse comes back to the topic of inalienable rights.
About a week ago, the talk had turned to action. Students in the class were joined by about 250 others at Simi High to protest constraints imposed by Principal David Ellis.
Carrying picket signs and chanting "We Want Rights," "Our School, Our Rights" and "We Are People, Too," the students marched peacefully on the school grounds.
"We were exercising our First Amendment rights, using what they've taught us," said senior Rick Lemke, protest organizer. "We realize we have certain freedoms and we should use them to the fullest."
Simi Valley, a community that grew out of suburban sprawl at the base of the Santa Susana Mountains, hardly seems to be a place where the protesting spirit of the 1960s thrives among teen-agers, but teachers, city officials and youths say a new activism is taking hold in this city of nearly 100,000.
"When I discuss current events, there's a much greater awareness of local and world issues," said government teacher Rob Collins. "It reminds me of the '60s. Students are actually getting involved."
In recent months, large numbers of Simi youths have not only exercised their constitutional right to speak freely, but have tangled with City Hall--and won.
It started in August when a group of teen-agers and young adults won concessions from the City Council to provide a "place to socialize" for restless youths and their mini-truck brigade. And last week, about 40 junior high and high school students marched into the council chambers to protest a proposed ban on riding skateboards on city streets.
The week before, 50 youths took a stand against the skateboard ban.
The result: Council members agreed to talk to youth leaders about designating alternate locations for skateboard riding, even though they banned skateboards on city property. City officials had been concerned that lawsuits could stem from injuries suffered on Civic Center property, which had become a popular spot for skateboarding.
Fueled by their successes with the mini-truck and skateboarding issues, youths say they want to set an activist trend that can bring about permanent change on the Simi High School campus as well as on city streets.
Since school began in September, the principal had made three decisions that did not sit well with the student body. Without seeking student input, he shortened lunch periods during homecoming festivities, ordered some bathrooms locked to discourage graffiti and closed parking lots during certain hours to control vandalism.
"We don't want to break the rules; we just want to change them," said senior Matt Rygh.
In the government class, students had learned about nonviolent protest. Then, outside the classroom, they showed the lessons had registered.
For example, when Lemke led the march, he insisted that students end their demonstration at 8 a.m., in time to attend their first classes. "We weren't going to let this interfere with our education," Lemke said. "We want the education without an iron hand."
Ellis said the protest was orderly and without incident.
"At the end, the leader told them, 'Pick up your mess and go to class,' " the principal said. "So it wasn't like there was a big fight. They wanted to be heard and I think they would agree they have been."
The students do agree they have been heard--and say they are not about to stop.
"Before, if a rule was passed, they'd complain and moan and wouldn't do anything about it," said Stanley Bergstrom, also a senior. "I think the kids are starting to see from this that they can make a change."
The high school and skateboarding protests were probably influenced by the success of the lobbying efforts of Simi mini-truckers earlier this year, said Rick McClure, the 20-year-old spokesman for the truck owners.
"I think we opened a lot of minds to a lot of things," McClure said. "It seems like since we started this, a lot of other stuff is starting to come up. We fought for the mini-truck thing and we got a place. Now it's skateboarders; pretty soon it'll probably be bicycle riders."
Last summer, business leaders complained to city officials that young people in mini-trucks were congregating in parking lots, blaring their radios and scaring away customers. The City Council's youth activities subcommittee, composed of two council members and six community leaders, was summoned to study the problem.
After some debate, the subcommittee recommended that the city allow mini-truckers to congregate on Sunday nights in the parking lot of the Simi Unifed School District headquarters on Cochran Street. The council approved the recommendation.