Washougal students protest state’s mask mandates

'Freedom Fighters of Washougal' go viral on Twitter; say they'll continue to miss school until state changes public health rules

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Washougal students gather at Fishback Stadium on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, to protest a Washington state mandate requiring students to wear face coverings inside K-12 school buildings to help curb the spread of COVID-19. (Screenshot of video by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

A group of Washougal students this week protested Washington state’s mask mandates for K-12 schools. 

The students, who call themselves “Freedom Fighters of Washougal,” are being led by seniors Caleb Bennett, Cade Costales and Harrison Tanner. 

“We are just trying to gain back our rights as citizens,” Costales told his peers gathered at Fishback Stadium on Monday, Jan. 31. “The teachers, in the end, are just doing their jobs. (The mandates don’t) come from them. They come from the state. Now, what we’re hoping is that they kick us out. This sounds bad, but we’re hoping that they kick us out, because they have to report that attendance to the state, and if the state sees a day when 100 or I don’t even know how many kids are absent, they’re going to start asking questions. … They can get me in trouble, they can suspend me, I don’t care. We’re done with the masks, and obviously all of you are, too.”

A group of students – described by school administrators as “20 to 30 students” and by the “Freedom Fighters” as “75 to 100 kids” – showed up to Washougal High School on Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 1-2, but refused to wear face coverings in accordance with state public health mandates meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

After school staff denied the students entry into the school, some students went home while others decided to engage in protests outside the high school. 

The students leading the Freedom Fighters group posted on Instagram on Tuesday, Feb. 1, that the turnout had been “amazing.” 

“I believe we had upwards of 75 to 100 kids,” they wrote. “Today we learned that what we are doing right here in our town has been heard around the country in states such as California, Illinois, New Jersey and Tennessee. We are the biggest group in Washington to be doing this, but not the only ones. Today, similar acts took place in Pe Ell, Toledo and Castle Rock. We have the support from adults and high-schoolers from across the state and country. Let’s keep this momentum going. We will fight the masks together.”

Washougal High principal Sheree Clark said “20 to 30” unmasked students attempted to enter the building on Wednesday Feb. 1.

“I really don’t think (it was 75 to 100),” Clark said. “They were out there at different times, so it was really hard to get an idea. Typically, we’d be able to run a report and get an idea of how many kids were out, but with COVID-19, we don’t know who’s out for what, so we’re not able to do that this year.”

Regardless of the actual number of “Freedom Fighters, ” word of the students’ actions quickly spread on social media, with many people, including several prominent political figures, voicing their support.

On Feb. 2, a Vancouver Twitter user known as “Casper the Deplorable Ghost” — who describe themselves on the social media site as a “University of Washington graduate. Independent. Conservative. Constitutionalist. Pureblood till the day I die” — posted a video of the students protesting, which garnered more than 27,500 likes and nearly 11,000 retweets within 24 hours. 

Joe Kent, of Yacolt, a Republican, Trump-backed candidate challenging Washington’s U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler for her 3rd Congressional seat, posted on Twitter on Feb. 2, about the Washougal students, stating: “Great leadership by this young man. Massive, peaceful, non-compliance is how we win. Great work, Washougal High. Time for the teachers and administrators (to) follow their lead.”

Meanwhile, COVID rates have skyrocketed in Clark County over the past month, with 5,096 confirmed cases added last week to the county’s total of 63,979 cases. Likewise, hospitalization and death rates due to COVID continue to increase locally, with an all-time high of 30 new COVID-related deaths added this week, including a woman in her 20s. The Washougal School District, which oversees about 3,200 students, has recorded 583 COVID cases among its students – including 224 cases at Washougal High School – and 102 cases among its staff members since the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Washougal High principal praises students as ‘peaceful, respectful’

Clark, the high school principal, said she was impressed by the students’ conduct during the protests.

“They were very, very respectful,” Clark said. “They were exemplary in the way that they approached this protest. I can’t reiterate how proud I am of our students who are peacefully demonstrating. They’ve been fantastic. (The protest) has been well organized by our students, and we’ve had a great partnership with them.”

Clark said she first learned of the group’s plans when several students raised concerns about social media posts that indicated that some of their fellow classmates intended to enter the building without face coverings.

“As you can imagine, some of them were concerned about that,” Clark said. “Within 30 minutes of receiving the first report, I was able to talk with the student who was organizing (the protest) and get a plan in place. Leading is really just about being prepared, so we went back and revisited our board policy and (looked at) our previous protests and followed the same pattern and process that we’ve had in the past. We gave staff talking points and provided communication out to families to let them know what was going on. It went very smoothly.”

Clark and Costales planned a walk-out on Monday, Jan. 31, to coincide with similar events around Washington state. The protest, held at Fishback Stadium during the school’s assembly period, drew about 100 students, including roughly 15 counter-protestors, according to Clark. 

“It was very peaceful and very respectful,” Clark said. “The students did a good job, but they were frustrated because they felt it was too controlled by the high school, and we can understand it felt that way for them. They decided they wanted to go ahead and protest on Tuesday and, again, we fully supported their right to do so.”

The Washington State Department of Health requires all school personnel, volunteers, visitors and students to wear face coverings over their noses and mouths while inside school buildings and on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

“We did explain to them that we’re not the decision-makers about the mask mandate, but we understand their want for seeing that change,” Clark said. “We let them know if students are in buildings, they have to wear their masks. No matter where we stand on the issues, we have to follow the rules. We told them that as long as they respected the decision, (they would face) no discipline or anything like that. The only discipline that would have occurred is if we had students in the building refusing to put their mask on and defiant behavior around that, and we did not have that at all.”

In a Feb. 1 Instagram post, the Freedom Fighters of Washougal said they intend to protest every day “until the state board does something about” the mandates.

“We are tired of the politics affecting our students in schools,” the group stated. 

Clark said she saw the numbers of students protesting the mask mandates dwindle throughout the week, with only “a smattering of kids here and there” protesting on Wednesday, Feb. 2.

“It’s not our job as leaders to encourage them to participate or not participate,” Clark said. “We really want to make sure that we’re mindful of their rights and responsibilities and citizenship. We encourage our students to be actively engaged citizens and want them to be knowledgeable about multiple viewpoints. It was important to us to make sure they were able to have that opportunity. We definitely support that, especially when it’s done in the way that they’ve conducted themselves.”