A group of UAHS students protested Wednesday against the school board’s decision to repeal the mask mandate.

BY JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23. PHOTOS BY BELLA VANMETER, ’22.

During both lunch periods Wednesday, two dozen-some UAHS students protested the Board of Education’s Feb. 8 decision to repeal the district’s mask mandate later this month. Holding signs urging decisionmakers to “keep the masks,” the student protestors marched the length of Golden Bear Boulevard. Onlookers gathered on the second floor and at lunch tables to watch the group make their way up and down the hall.

The protest was planned by senior Bella Stabile, who formally started preparations for it late last week. Stabile announced the protest Sunday with an Instagram post, which soon spread throughout the UAHS student body, garnering nearly 500 comments.

Many of those comments diverged from discussing the protest or masks. Some were playful and frivolous, discussing topics like video games, foot fungus, Olive Garden and LeBron James. Other comments, however, took on an uncivil tone, with many attacking Stabile, who identifies as lesbian and agender and uses all pronouns, as well as other proponents of the mask mandate.

“I thought we settled this when we gave you the all gender bathrooms,” one comment read.

“Dang these alphabet people really getting heated in here,” another opined.

“[N]ot even jesus can save this underdeveloped brain,” a third stated.

“Get your lgbtq- community outa [sic] here,” a fourth said.

“Take your loss you lgbtq fools,” another said.

“Instead of protesting for masks,” a final commenter said, “we should protest to get emo mfs out of our school.”

Ultimately, Stabile opted to delete the comments and disable commenting on the post altogether.

“I’ve talked to a few people respectfully about our differing opinions,” Stabile said. “And that’s why I left the comments open: to hopefully get those conversations flowing. But I had to turn them off because people were not being respectful.”

Stabile also received direct messages from students, they said. In one exchange, a screenshot of which was obtained by Arlingtonian, a student called Stabile a slur and a “worthless piece of s***” and encouraged them to “die in a … fire.” Arlingtonian has not independently verified the authenticity of those messages.

Stabile said they approached UAHS administration in response to some of the comments and direct messages.

“I’ve had a couple meetings with Theado over the hate speech,” Stabile said. “I’ve had to report people for it, because it’s not okay. It goes against the code of conduct.”

Principal Andrew Theado said that any incidents of harassment or bullying would be handled in accordance with the student handbook.

“We’ve worked with the students who’ve reported to us some things that are happening on social media, which we have been dealing with the past couple days – the students who were directing things at individual students,” Theado said. “We take care of those through our Students’ Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, and make sure that we’re dealing with those appropriately.”

This incivility wasn’t limited to the online discussions, Stabile said. Flyers advertising the protest were hung around the school by organizers and removed by other students, they said.

“[We] hung things up every day because they got ripped down every day,” Stabile said.

Still, Stabile said, there were moments of civil discourse in organizing the protest.

“I’ve received DMs from people that are saying, while they personally don’t want to wear masks or they don’t believe in wearing masks, they respect my decision to hold a protest,” Stabile said. “A lot of them were apologizing for things they didn’t even do just because they know people that were doing it. So support in that manner has been good.”

Soon after the protest was announced, an anonymous Instagram account, @no_more_masks_ua, was created in opposition to mask mandates at UAHS. That account, which couldn’t be reached Wednesday, announced a “[p]rotest against the protest” in a since deleted post featuring Stabile’s initial graphic with an expletive superimposed over the words “Keep The Masks.”

To keep tensions between protesters and counterprotesters at bay, UAHS administrators were present on Golden Bear Boulevard, as was UAHS School Resource Officer Jon Rice.

“I’m just basically making sure everybody stays civil so both sides can be heard, and to make sure nobody gets hurt,” Rice said. “Each side has a voice.”

Theado concurred, saying that the school aimed to offer students the opportunity to express their voices.

“I know everybody has their opinions,” Theado said. “And so we’re just trying to give students the ability to voice their opinions in a safe way.”

That sense of voice was one reason to protest, junior Edith LeBlanc, who protested in favor of mandatory masking, said.

“I think it’s really important that students speak up for what they believe in,” LeBlanc said. “And I think it’s important to not reverse the progress we’ve already made with the mask mandate in the district.”