At the same time law enforcement was grappling with an armed occupation outside of Burns, a high school teacher was finding a “teachable moment.” Actually a month of teachable moments.
The armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge shut down Harney County schools for a week.
That time off gave Jake Thompson time to think. The Burns High School social studies teacher emailed his principal, and his students’ parents. Thompson told them he wanted to discuss the occupation. He said his students would expect no less.
“I knew that they would be upset if we just came into class, and I was like, ‘Well, listen we’re going to talk about federalism today,’” Thompson said.
“They would’ve been looking at me like, ‘You’re kidding — these things need to be addressed.’”
Thompson started where the occupation began: a protest over the imprisonment of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. It drew demonstrators like Bob Ide from Wyoming.
“I mean, I think they got a raw deal here, and I think everyone here thinks they did, too,” Ide told OPB at the Jan. 2 protest.
A key element of the Hammonds’ “raw deal” had to do with federal mandatory sentencing. They were given sentences for arson that fell short of the minimums initially. A judge later ruled that the ranchers should serve the full five years for their crimes.
But rather than digging directly into the Hammonds’ case, Thompson looked at drug crimes. He asked Burns high school students what sentence should non-violent drug offenses carry.
“And to a student, they went, ‘Well, maybe a year in jail, or probation, or community service,’ - and some of these people had 40-year sentences. And they just couldn’t believe it,” Thompson explained.
There were other legal and constitutional discussions that led to more aggressive questioning of the occupiers’ ideology.
Lead occupier Ammon Bundy summarized that ideology in a Jan. 3 statement, at his first press conference at the refuge.
“That’s great, but there are other parts to the Constitution,” Thompson said. “The necessary and proper clause which allows the federal government to use implied powers; they have elasticity. They can do things that are in their best interest, such as buying Louisiana, obtaining the Oregon Territory.”
Thompson said his challenging of Bundy’s position spurred discussion in the classroom.
“So, now the wheels begin turning — and immediately the students went, ‘Well, that can’t be the case, because the federal government owns or has bought a lot of land in the United States, and what are they supposed to do with that?’ Great. Let’s go to the property clause … ”
Thompson said students did a good job of making arguments, backing up their opinions with constitutional citations or court decisions. But there were conflicts — and strong emotions as the occupation continued.
“The friction came with the death of LaVoy Finicum. That was tough to handle,” Thompson said.
Arizona rancher Finicum had been a spokesperson for the militants. He was shot by police Jan. 26 during an arrest operation that scooped up many of the occupation’s leaders.
“America lost a patriot, America lost a great man,” Lynch said, as he stepped through the deep snow along the highway from Burns to John Day. “He’s a cattle farmer. He feeds the American people, whether they want to believe that or not.”
Thompson’s students questioned him about the police tactics used in the arrest operation, but the teacher focused on broader questions around the rights of the accused.
“What are your Fourth Amendment rights about search and seizure? What are your Sixth Amendment rights? What are your Miranda rights?” Thompson asked.
Thompson feels like the discussion helped students process a painful set of events.
“Even the kids who were really committed to ‘this was murder,’ admitted that there were better ways to handle the situation,” he said.
Thompson had parent conferences while the occupation was ongoing, and he said most parents were grateful that he discussed the conflict. It led to dinner-table debates in some houses. As a civics teacher, Thompson appreciates that in his students.
“They can leave a class and say, ‘Listen, I disagreed with everything that was said, but I respect the right of those people to have those opinions,’” Thompson said.
“And at the end of the day, that’s hopefully what you have in a pretty decent citizen.”
OPB reporters Amanda Peacher and Amelia Templeton contributed to this story.