Stung by a brawl at their school and what they say is a "prisonlike" atmosphere there, about a dozen students demonstrated yesterday to demand change at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia.

The students also asked for a meeting with James Golden, the district's safety officer, to protest the district's handling of a disruption Sept. 17, when 20 students were arrested.

Authorities said that when some students arrived at school that day at 9:45 a.m., an hour and 45 minutes late, a city police officer told them that they could not enter because of dress-code violations. One or more tried anyway, sparking a physical confrontation with officers.

That mushroomed into a series of fights in the school, at 58th and Walnut Streets, which was locked down for a time. Additional police officers rushed to the school.

Two students were charged with assaulting police, one was charged with assaulting a teacher, and 17 were charged with disorderly conduct.

Candace Carter, a senior at Sayre, said 50 police officers had swarmed the school, brandishing batons, tasering students and beating one. She said students had been unfairly tagged.

"We as students and human beings have rights, and we would like them to be respected," Carter said. "We want people to know that we're not animals, monsters and crack babies."

Lt. Frank Vanore, spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said news of yesterday's demonstration was the first he had heard of misconduct allegations.

"I don't know of a complaint, and if we do have one, it will be thoroughly investigated," he said. "If there's no complaint, we'll go through school climate and safety people to make sure the students know what to do if they want to make a complaint."

A "multiple assist" call - a call for multiple backup officers - was made that day, Vanore said, but he did not know how many officers were at the school.

The protesters - organized by the Philadelphia Student Union, a grassroots group active at several high schools around the city - said that they wanted officers suspended, but that they had not yet made a complaint to police.

After the brawl, the Philadelphia School District reported no injuries. The students said one classmate had been treated at a hospital.

Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, said yesterday that "if there was an emergency vehicle called by the school, we would have known about it." However, he said, it is possible a student sought treatment outside of school.

Gayle Daniels, Sayre's principal, could not be reached for comment. Yesterday was a holiday for students and staff.

The students who rallied outside Sayre yesterday said the day of the fight was confusing and frightening.

Maurice Scott, 18, a junior, was sitting in his third-period lunch when the brawl broke out.

"All of a sudden, the officers came in and just started throwing people down on the floor," he said. "They were arresting and beating people up. They told us not to leave the cafeteria, but I was scared. I didn't want to get arrested."

Scott called the show of force excessive.

"Why would they do that? We're just kids," he said.

Matthew Johnson, a senior, called Sayre a "depressing" place, with a lack of qualified teachers and supplies, including textbooks.

"I don't think of it as a school anymore," he said. "I think of it as a prison. It's not really a learning environment."

Isiah Enoch, a senior, said his English class had had multiple substitutes and had just gotten its third teacher.

"If we're acting up, it's because we're not learning," Enoch said.

Johnson and others said students felt isolated, with juniors and seniors cut off from freshmen and sophomores. They want more of a sense of school community, to be able to set up a peer mentoring program.

They want school police officers to be better trained in de-escalation tactics. They want to meet with Golden.

Gallard, the district spokesman, said that if the students formally requested a meeting with Golden, it likely would happen.

He said the district had investigated complaints that students did not have enough books and found them untrue. The students said that in nearly every class, there were either no textbooks or just one set, meaning books could not be taken home.

"I think the misunderstanding is that the students think they should be able to take reference books home," said Gallard, adding that if books are too heavy or not necessary to take home, the district will keep just one set. "It's not based on budget. It's based on what is the appropriate school book-management policy."

Gallard said the district would sit down with students and get a list of specific books they say they're missing.

In 2003, Sayre was transformed from a middle school to one of the small high schools that have become popular around the city. But the promise of a more orderly learning environment at the 680-student school has not materialized.

Last year, a 17-year-old student was shot outside Sayre in what authorities called a gang turf dispute.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.