A group of more than a dozen adults, some wearing brown berets and holding signs, stood in the cold at the corner of Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City on Friday morning for more than two hours, waiting to join a student walkout that never happened.
According to the Salt Lake City Brown Berets, who sent out a news release about the event, the students want aide Antonio Fierro reinstated, to learn more about Chicano and Tongan history and the opportunity to evaluate the school’s teachers.
Two students came out of the school just before 10 a.m. and held signs provided by the Salt Lake City Brown Berets. They told The Salt Lake Tribune other students wanted to come out and join the protest but were afraid. The students later went back inside.
Fierro is a member of the Brown Berets, which has its roots in a movement begun by Chicanos in California in the 1960s and now advocates against oppression and exploitation. Organizers said Fierro, who was not present at the walkout on Friday, was fired after an earlier walkout on Election Day that took kids outside school grounds.
“They thought that I started the walkout, but it was the kids," Fierro said Friday about his firing.
Yándary Zavala Chatwin, a spokeswoman for Salt Lake City School District, said she was not able to comment on Fierro’s firing because it’s a personnel matter.
More than 100 students had walked out of Bryant on Election Day, feeling powerless under the Trump administration, said Itzayana Koos, an organizer with the Brown Berets. Many students at the school are from low-income and immigrant families, she said.
Fierro noted that he did walk out with the students that day, but said it was to ensure their safety and because he supported their message.
“They were protesting against all the anti-immigration, the deportation and to have teacher’s evaluations, because there’s a lot of racist teachers,” he said. “A lot of teachers being mean to our kids. They’re not teaching our history in school, you know, they’re tired of being lied to.”
About 12 members of the Brown Berets were at Bryant Friday morning to protest his firing. He said he has a special connection with the students because he is one of just a few staff members or teachers of color at the school.
The majority of students at Bryant “come from Rose Park and Glendale and I come from Rose Park,” said Fierro, 23. "A lot of them I grew up with as little kids. I have a really good connection with my community.”
The Brown Berets said the school had stopped students interested in walking out Friday from doing so, a characterization the school district disputes.
“I want to emphasize it was the kids from Bryant that wanted to walk out [Friday]. It’s their voice that’s being suppressed, not ours,” Koos said, adding that students want “racism embedded in the schools to be eliminated.”
Chatwin said the students who walked out on Election Day had surprised administrators by leaving the school grounds and noted that they hadn’t informed administrators about the planned walkout on Friday.
The administration gave students time and space out on the field behind the school for the Election Day protest, Chatwin said. But they ended up walking off campus to the Capitol as part of an event that was bigger than what they had shared with the principal.
“I walked with the kids, and adults kept joining them who were wearing brown berets,” she said. “And I’m not clear on how the organization happened. But it did appear to be led by these adults.”
On Friday, students had planned to walk to Salt Lake City School District headquarters, a news release from the Brown Berets said.
Chatwin said the district’s walkout policies are the same for middle school and high school students, who she said have generally been given the freedom to voice their opinions. She added that no students were stopped from joining the protest on Friday.
After school, a group of students agreed the walkout had been intended to protest the firing of Fierro, whom they praised as someone who was always willing to help them and listen to them. But they said the protest was last minute and that many students didn’t seem to know about it.
An administrator joined the group shortly afterward and the group quickly dissipated.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report