At 10 a.m. Monday at Catholic East Elementary, a group of the oldest students fanned out across the school to deliver a message to each classroom: “We’re going.”
Most of the students at the school, which extends through eighth grade, filed outside and sat in a half-circle on the lawn around the student leaders. Students had already spread the word earlier in the morning that they would walk out to protest the firing of their principal, Timothy Trzcinko.
"Trzcinko has taught us all to be brave, strong and use our voices and that is exactly what we are doing today," Evelyn Bleything, 14, told the group, preparing them for a day of peaceful protest and prayer on the lawn, even as some staff warned they would call parents if students didn't return to class. Other staff stood outside to support and supervise the students.
Bleything and the other students hadn't heard from their principal since he went to a meeting May 11.
Seton Catholic Schools, the network that oversees Catholic East, suspended Trzcinko that day and told him his termination was finalized May 17.
A spokesperson for Seton confirmed that Trzcinko had not harmed students but did not answer other questions about the termination, noting that it was "related to a personnel matter" and "all personnel matters are confidential."
"We have assured our families that all decisions being made follow our values as a Catholic school and are made with the best interest of the students, staff and school community in mind," a Seton statement for the media read.
Trzcinko, in an interview with the Journal Sentinel, said he was accused of asking too many questions about policy and practices, and sharing certain information with other school leaders.
Specifically, Trzcinko said Seton leaders were unhappy when he turned to Catholic East leadership, which represents seven Milwaukee parishes, to support a raise for a staff member that Seton had denied. Trzcinko had also raised questions about hiring practices as Seton was hiring for the school without letting him meet candidates, he said.
The Seton Catholic Schools network was launched in 2015 by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to pull together struggling parish schools into a network where they could share services. It's been a rocky transition as some school communities have felt they've lost local control and transparency as Seton leaders make more governing decisions.
Days before the May 11 meeting, Trzcinko said he was told a Seton representative had been observing the school and there would be a performance evaluation May 11. As the meeting approached, Trzcinko said he grew more concerned and made a LinkedIn post the night before about looking for a new role. Trzcinko said that post was included as a reason for his suspension.
Trzcinko said he wasn't given an improvement plan or any opportunity to work toward returning to the school. He said he was told not to be in touch with families and staff during his suspension.
"I'm deeply concerned for the state of our kids," Trzcinko said. "Without any transparency, you remove somebody who has not done anything criminal or illegal. Our kids are owed better."
At the protest Monday, the students recited the St. Francis peace prayer.
"The peace prayer stood out because it says, where there's darkness, let there be light," Bleything said, explaining that their goal was to "be strong but do it in a way where you're not hurting other people and still uplifting Catholic values."
Students at the protest said Trzcinko brought a positive attitude and led activities that encouraged them to meet more students outside their usual friend groups. Angelina Kendrick, 11, said she hoped the protest would bring Trzcinko back.
"When I first came here I was down, I wanted to be alone," she said. "He united us to come close and together."
An academic aide, who asked not to be named, estimated about 90% of the school's students were on the lawn.
"One of the Catholic social teachings is solidarity, and our students are clearly demonstrating that today," he said.
The aide said he thought Seton should be providing counseling for students about the loss of their principal.
"These children have relationships and when you lose someone, that's grief," he said. "There's no response team out here. It's a major loss, and to not show up for that is heartbreaking."
Around 10:30 a.m., a Seton representative told students if they did not return to the building, staff would call their homes and they would be picked up. Staff also notified police, who stopped by but didn't intervene. Most students stayed outside.
Seton sent a message to parents telling them their students left class without permission and "refused to come back into the building." The message told parents to pick up their children as soon as possible.
Parents did pick up their children. Some said they supported the students' action.
"He brought so much joy to our school and my kids," Tamara Pacada said. "He would lead morning dance parties before the school day started and my 7-year-old was so disappointed when he heard he couldn’t have that."
Parents had taken their own action, too, in support of Trzcinko.
Pacada said about 60 parents and guardians signed onto a petition sent to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki Friday calling for Trzcinko to be reinstated as principal. They also called for giving the School Advisory Council control over the hiring and oversight of school leadership, as well as financial oversight.
If their requests were not met, the letter asked for a process by which Catholic East could break away from Seton.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Catholic East students walk out after principal fired