May 15, 2013 - For Renaissance High School English Language Arts 9 class, a simple assignment on nuclear history led to a call to action to help people half a world away.
The Renaissance High School English class made posters to spread the word about the Bikini Atoll. Photo by Phil Custodio (click for larger version)
"We owe them a lot," said student Andrew Sabo about the people of Bikini Atoll, still suffering the effects of U.S. nuclear testing from decades ago.
"Our government owes them what was promised," said classmate Victoria Phillips.
"Imagine if they were us and this was happening," said Dana Clifton, student.
They're working to spread the word about the continued plight of Bikini islanders, whose atoll was targeted in more than 20 nuclear bomb tests from 1946-1958.
"It's not just our class – we're starting with the school and moving on to the community," said Vicky Petrouneas-Mantzios, their teacher along with Kristen Mrozek. "The kids care about it. Mrs. Pambid (principal), everyone has been really supportive."
They learned the U.S. government relocated the island population 126 miles away from the blast, but effects of the radiation travel 5,000-7,000 miles. Since the testing, they were moved several times throughout the Marshall Island chain, of which Bikini is a part, but could never return to their home due to lingering radiation.
"As we started researching, we found civil defense and the War Department reported minor injuries," Petrouneas-Mantzios said. "As we went deeper, we found there was actually more – cancer, people losing hair, birth defects."
The students were upset by the lack of adequate response from the government, she said.
They're writing letters to their senator, made a video for the school, and posted information on Facebook.
"They worked really hard. I'm very impressed with their positive attitude – we're getting close to summer, and they actually care about this," she said.
The class discussed nuclear radiation using expository texts, articles, and videos from the federal government. "A lot of good firsthand sources," she said.
Richard Hampton learned the islands were recently selected to be part of a new radar system, defending the continental United States from missiles and other threats.
"It's interesting that the Bikini Islands are protecting us from nuclear weapons after all that bad stuff," Hampton said. "They're shielding us."
"They don't hold a grudge," Vicky Petrouneas-Mantzios said. "They've moved on with life."
"They're willing to forgive," Phillips said.
"There are probably people there who are angry with us," Hampton said. "I feel we need to be the change. It's been a little while since the government made their promises."
Dillon Gruendel learned about the lifestyle of people living in the Marshall Islands and what they celebrate.
"Today is Constitution Day (May 1)," Gruendel said. Islanders also observe Remembrance Day, formerly Nuclear Victims' Day and Nuclear Survivors' Day, on March 1, he said.
"They're a lot more likely to die of cancer," said Ashton Gibson. "People have died in every family."
Their research led to author Jack Niedenthal, a native of Pennsylvania who has lived in the Marshall Islands for more than 40 years.
"He asked if we wanted to Skype, and everybody was really excited," Petrouneas-Mantzios said. They interviewed Niedenthal and Alson Kelen, a former Bikini mayor, over the computer, April 30.
"It was midnight there and 8 a.m. here," the teacher said. "It was very kind of them to do that."
Their campaign also includes petitions, posters, talking to family and friends, Tweets, and videos – check Change.org, "Help the Bikini islanders."
Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.