Ellis students challenge policy on water bottle ban…and won

Published 4:37 pm Saturday, November 17, 2018

When Ellis Middle School eighth grader Ater Manyuon was reprimanded for bringing a water bottle to school, he was told to bring it up with the principal.

When Asia Higgins was reprimanded for having a water bottle despite having permission from the school nurse, she was told to bring it up with the principal.

So, the two students brought it up to the Austin School Board, and won.

Email newsletter signup

Ellis Middle School had a school policy that prohibited students from bringing water bottles to school, according to Principal Jessica Cabeen. Initially, Ellis had allowed water bottles at school when she previously served as assistant principal, but believed that the rules were installed after she left to serve at Woodson Kindergarten Center about four to five years ago.

“I didn’t know that was the rule. I had contacted IJ Holton and Austin High School and they didn’t have a policy like that,” Cabeen said.

After their own experiences of bringing a water bottle to school, and being reprimanded, the two decided to bring their concerns to Cabeen.

Once a dialogue was established, Higgins and Manyuon decided to do some research into the policy, and what they could do to change it.

When Higgins had talked to the school counselor regarding the policy, she learned that it was because the water bottles were previously abused when students had brought alcohol in them a long time ago. To which, Manyuon was “disappointed,” and that “it’s unfair that everyone wasn’t allowed to bring water bottles because of the actions of a few other students,” he added.

The two went to work. After creating a student survey, to which 500 students responded, Higgins and Manyuon gathered the data to see if bringing back water bottles would be something that the student body would support. More than 450 students said they wanted water bottles in school. More than 220 students said they would bring water bottles that were plastic, and more than 250 said that the bottles should be clear.

Along with the data from the student surveys, Higgins and Manyuon also created some rules that would go along with the case if the school approved their request and also hold others accountable to maintain their privileges such as no throwing water from the water bottles at classmates, the only beverage that can be in the bottles is water, and teachers would have the authority to confiscate a water bottle if used inappropriately.

Manyuon said that if there was another beverage other than water and was considered “suspicious” then the student would be reported to administrators.

So, he and Higgins created a powerpoint presentation and had a meeting with Superintendent David Krenz to discuss the policy and to see if it could be reversed.

“(Superintendent Krenz) liked our presentation, and he explained that the privileges were taken away, and that it would be up to the school board,” Manyuon said.

On Tuesday night, Higgins and Manyuon had presented to the Austin School Board about their reasoning for challenging the rules that banned water bottles from Ellis. After explaining their stance on the water bottles, and why they felt that Ellis should allow students to bring them, it was up to the school board to vote.

Unanimously, the school board had voted to reinstate the use of water bottles at Ellis. After a celebratory selfie and post to Snapchat, Manyuon and Higgins were congratulated by their teachers and fellow classmates for taking the initiative to challenge a policy that they felt was unfair.

“I felt good, happy and accomplished,” Higgins said. “We were not doing it for just ourselves, but for everybody.”

Through Manyuon’s and Higgins’ efforts, Ellis will be receiving a couple water bottle dispensers within the next week and installed. Also, because of their leadership, Cabeen created a focus group that will be made up of selected students to help give her feedback on school policies and gain perspective from them.

“Often times, students are not part of the conversation when policies affect them,” she said. “It’s about having dialogue. Not everything will get an immediate ‘yes,’ but we have high expectations of our students. They give me feedback on how to make Ellis a great place. Seeing their honesty, and how they demonstrate great character. …I am so proud of them.”

This experience was also a teachable moment as well. Higgins and Manyuon initially said that they weren’t the typical “good kids” with perfect grades or behavior, but Cabeen immediately told them that leaders can be people who take a stance and aren’t always perfect.

“Student leadership can come from outside grades and perfect behavior,” she said. “These students are representative of our students population here at Ellis.”

Now that the students will be getting water bottles, Higgins and Manyuon said that because students had requested their privileges to be reinstated, they will be more inclined to hold each other accountable to maintain those privileges that were earned.

Despite initially feeling that adults would have “shut them down” from changing school policy, Manyuon and Higgins took a risk and found that they were able to achieve something they worked hard to bring back.

“If you put your heart into it, you can accomplish it,” Higgins said with a smile.