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Huntington Beach middle school students protest solar panels

January 27, 2011 | 11:50 am

Students at Dwyer Middle School have knocked on doors, designed fliers and canvassed their Huntington Beach neighborhood -- and they've even sacrificed 30 precious minutes of sleep on school days to protest solar panels planned for the front lawn of the school.

Thirteen-year-old Katie Cason is one of the students. For the last week, she's been protesting in the mornings before class by holding signs, urging drivers to honk horns, and cheering. She said the panels are infringing on a popular grassy area used for socializing.

"It won't be the same at all," she said Thursday morning before class. Cason and a group of students and parents will also be protesting outside the school at 1:30 Thursday, a culmination of months of complaints. Though the students plan to protest at the school, if they are told to leave, they will move to Lake Park, where attorney Gloria Allred is scheduled to hold a news conference.

Parents say they were not properly informed of an $8-million district plan to install solar panels on the front lawn of the middle school. Feasibility studies began in June 2008, but various parents say they didn't know about the panels until October 2010. A contract with Chevron Energy Solutions was signed in April 2010 and includes four other schools.

The district superintendent, Kathy Kessler, acknowledged a breakdown in communication at Dwyer, but she said the school board has weighed all options. The panels are expected to save the district about $75,000 in energy costs annually. Construction costs are to be offset by rebates, savings and other incentives.

Blake Hehl, 12, is another student involved in the protest. He had woken up early on school days to pass out fliers and hang signs on neighborhood trees. Students have even protested at nearby Chevron stations.

He pointed out that he thinks there's better sunlight on the side of the school, near where the buses drop students off.

Annelle Wiederkehr, 40, said she was dragged to a school board meeting by her impassioned eighth-grade daughter. She's been surprised at how involved students have been about the issue.

"They've basically been a very hardworking army," she said.

Students have had to make up their own rules, such as no mooning and no fireworks. They've also had parents put the brakes on other ideas, such as gluing themselves to the school's fences.

To the students, the grassy area in front of the school is sentimental. It's where girls get asked out by boys, it's where they hang out in the morning before school and it's where an annual graduation ceremony is held.

"My concern is that the kids don't want to lose their lawn space," Wiederkehr said.

On Monday, Huntington Police Chief Kenneth Small met with a group of about 25 students to educate them about peaceful assembly and curfew. Small said some parents saw the meeting as aggressive, but that he understands the students' plight.

"I understand why they are upset," he said Thursday adding that he plans to deploy some traffic and school resource officers for the rally but that he didn't expect any arrests.

Kessler acknowledged that the parents at Dwyer were not properly informed of the project, but said the school board has attempted to remedy that situation by holding public meetings. She said it could cost the cash-strapped district between $150,000 and $200,000 to move the panels.

"I'm confident that the board carefully listened and weighed all the comments," she said of parent complaints.


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