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PROVO — Saying they are frustrated, sad and feeling powerless, about 150 Timpview High School students, many of them members of the football team, walked out of class Monday to protest the suspension of the school's football coach.
"It's been crazy," said senior lineman Gordon Moimoi, who was among those who helped organize the walkout in order to show support for football coach Louis Wong Wong was suspended without pay last week and could be fired within a month.
"They're trying to take our football coach from us, and we want to do something to show our support for coach Wong. He taught us to be fighters, and now we're fighting for him," Moimoi said.
The plan, by football team members, was posted on Timpview's "We Love Coach Wong" Facebook page, where there was a lively debate as the protest began over whether the walkout was a good idea.
An announcement from the office as the protest began told students: "We know you're planning a walkout. You should understand you have the right to do that, but you have to go off school property."
Principal Todd McKee, who took over the school's administration in July, said he and his administration have been trying to help students deal with the emotions they've felt in the wake of Wong's suspension.
"We understand this has been a difficult emotional time for the kids," said McKee. "I understand them wanting to respond."
Administrators knew about the plan, he said, and arrived early to make sure students felt like they were able to exercise their right to free speech, but that they also understood their protest could not disrupt classes or the school's function.
McKee said administrators have been talking with students all week as they try to process the potential loss of a popular coach and teacher.
"We're dealing with very adult issues, and the kids get somewhat caught in the middle," he said. "We'll just continue to try and help them process as this situation continues. I've had lots of conversations with students and our counseling department is on alert so students can speak to someone."
He said their warning to students about not disrupting class was not meant to be a threat.
"This is not about trying to create a confrontation," he said.
Wong, a four-time state champion coach at Timpview High, was suspended without pay on Tuesday after a state audit and subsequent district probe alleged a number of questionable financial transactions. That investigation is ongoing and further disciplinary action against other school employees is a possibility.
The allegations raised by the audit and probe include: charging personal car repairs to the school; failure to run background checks on some assistant coaches; failure to secure pre-authorization for travel; questionable reimbursement for personal expenses, meals and gifts when working for an outside agency; inconsistent and inadequate receipts and records; and soliciting and accepting personal compensation from a clothing company.
Wong insisted he hasn't done anything wrong and that he is being fired for common practices within the district. He told the Deseret News he will appeal the suspension and fight efforts to fire him from a job he's had for 14 years.
On Facebook, Marna Holbrook Sudweeks said she agrees with the planned walkout. "This is the only thing these kids feel like they can do. I support my son and told him I'd bring the pizza."
Ree Lu countered: "Ma'am, sorry, but I'm not in support of ditching school. I think it's OK to protest to support coach Wong, but by ditching school you are flat-out disrespecting the teachers who are here to teach students."
The students left the interior of the school so they could speak with media, who were asked to wait on public sidewalks in pursuing the story. The students chanted, "We love coach Wong! We want coach Wong!"
"Playing for coach Wong is the best experience I've had in my life. It's not just about football, he taught me how to be a young man," Moimoi said. "We don't just talk about football. We talk to coach about life."
Junior Sara Vanlangeveld joined the protest, saying it would be a loss to the entire school if Wong doesn't get his job back. "The money he raises is not just for football."
Stefani Solorzano is a Timpview graduate and her brother, Tyler, is a junior at the school and safety on the football team. "I've seen a difference in my brother because of coach Wong," she said. "He used to not care about his grades. He used to be kind of a troublemaker. But coach Wong has made such a difference in him. Now he is so hard working. He is my best friend."
"Football is the center of the school in a good way," Solorzano said. "Coach Wong inspires people to get involved."
"And he encourages them to do their own thing. He's supportive of all the other activities at Timpview, and he includes everyone," Vanlangenveld added.
Cars honked as they passed the group outside the school, the students chanting "Wong, Wong, we want Wong."