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On a school lawn, protests over solar panels

Hundreds of students and their parents protest the installation of solar panels on the popular front lawn at Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach.

January 28, 2011|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Dwyer Middle School students, including sixth-grader Bobby Prestwood, right, gather at a nearby park in protest of planned solar panels on the popular front lawn of their Huntington Beach campus.
Dwyer Middle School students, including sixth-grader Bobby Prestwood,… (Christina House, For The…)

To the students at Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach, the grassy area below the stairs is the spot.

For Nina Nguyen, 13, it was where she was asked out by a boy for the first time. For Mark Elvidge, 12, it's where he met his first friend at the school.

It's where students socialize before and after class, where physical education classes are held and where middle school culminates for the eighth-graders. The annual promotion ceremony has been held on the lawn since the school was built in 1933, parents say.

But future memories might be dimmed because the Huntington Beach City School District plans to install solar panels on the front lawn. The decision has prompted hundreds of students and their parents to protest the location of the panels, which they say takes away from the students' open space and obstructs views of the school. The students and parents wonder why the panels can't be moved.

Parents say they didn't know about the $8-million project until it was approved. Feasibility studies were begun in June 2008, but many parents say were unaware of it until October 2010.

The contract with Chevron Energy Solutions was signed in April 2010 and includes four other schools. District Supt. Kathy Kessler acknowledged that there was a breakdown in communication between Dwyer Middle School and parents, but said the panels could save the district about $75,000 a year in energy costs. Over the next 25 years, the district estimates the panels will save more than $1.9 million. All construction costs, the district said, will be financed using rebates and incentives.

In protest, students have knocked on doors, designed fliers and canvassed the neighborhood. At the campus Thursday, students in white T-shirts with a logo reading "Stop Chevron" chanted through white megaphones, "Get off our grass." They hoisted one other on shoulders, shouted and, in their words, practiced their civic duty.

Within minutes the crowd had relocated to a nearby park, where students stood on a makeshift stage to speak.

"It's time the students of our middle school are heard," Emily Hubbard, an eighth-grader, told the crowd. Later, she said it felt good to speak out.

Annelle Wiederkehr, 40, said she was dragged to a school board meeting by her impassioned eighth-grade daughter, Caroline. She's been surprised at the level of student involvement.

"They've basically been a very hard-working army," she said.

Students made up their own rules for the protest, such as no mooning or fireworks. Parents nixed other ideas, such as students gluing themselves to the school's fences.

Early this week, Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth Small met with about 25 students on how to hold a peaceful assembly. Small said some parents saw the meeting as an intimidation tactic by the Police Department, but he added that he understands why the students are upset: They want their precious open space.

No one was arrested at the afternoon rally. It originally was to be held at the school and last overnight, but the district considered it a liability.

Kessler said the school board has attempted to address the lack of information by holding public meetings. But the board has no intention of moving the panels, she said, because doing so could cost the cash-strapped district between $150,000 and $200,000.

For many parents, students and community members, the civic experience gained was reward enough.

"You're never too young to protest," said sixth-grader Rachel Ford.

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