Schools grapple with how to accommodate student activism

Middle and high schools across the country are facing serious questions about if and how to coordinate with students on planned political actions – including walkouts – that have spread rapidly in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting. 

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/AP
Students sit on the sidewalk as part of a walkout at Somerville High School on Feb. 28, 2018 in Somerville, Mass. Students here organize walkouts every Wednesday as a part of an effort to keep public attention on school safety and gun control.

As schools around the country brace for student walkouts following the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla., principals and superintendents are scrambling to perform a delicate balancing act: How to let thousands of students exercise their First Amendment rights while not disrupting school and not pulling administrators into the raging debate over gun control.

Some have taken a hard line, promising to suspend students who walk out, while others are using a softer approach, working with students to set up places on campus where they can remember the victims of the Florida shooting and express their views about school safety and gun control.

Since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, demonstrations have sprung up on school campuses around the country. But the first large-scale, coordinated national demonstration is planned for Wednesday when organizers of the Women's March have called for a 17-minute walkout, one minute for each of the 17 students and staff members killed in Florida.

National demonstrations are also planned for March 24, with a march on Washington, D.C.; and on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

No matter how schools decide to deal with the demonstrations, students have been reassured by Harvard, Yale, MIT, the University of Connecticut, UCLA, and dozens of other colleges and universities that their participation won't affect their chances of getting admitted.

But for middle-school and high-school administrators, figuring out how to allow the demonstrations during school hours has proven challenging. In some cases, it hasn't gone smoothly.

In Needville, Texas, near Houston, Superintendent Curtis Rhodes was castigated on social media after he warned that students who leave class would be suspended for three days, even if they get parental permission.

"SHAME, SHAME, SHAME ON YOU," wrote one woman.

In Garretson, S.D., administrators canceled a student walkout planned for April 20 after a Facebook posting about the plan drew more than 300 negative comments from adults.

And in Arizona, dozens of students at Ingleside Middle School, near Phoenix, were given one-day suspensions after they left campus on Feb. 27.

Layla Defibaugh, an eighth-grade student at Ingleside, said she wanted to participate in the walkout, but didn't because of the threatened suspensions. She does plan to join the Wednesday walkout, even it means getting suspended.

"It's important for me to speak my mind on this topic," she said. "At the end of the day, they shouldn't be able to punish us for exercising our First Amendment rights."

The School Superintendents Association (AASA), has fielded dozens of calls and emails from school administrators asking for advice, while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has received hundreds of inquiries from students about what their rights are and if they can be disciplined for participating in the protests.

The answer depends on each school's code of conduct and disciplinary policies. Generally, the ACLU has been advising students that because they are required to go to school by law, administrators can discipline them for unexcused absences. But the ACLU also told students in an online training video that administrators can't punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their demonstrations.

The superintendents association – which is supporting the April 20 walkout – has drafted a list of suggestions for school administrators, including holding a teach-in, a school-led walkout to a spot on campus, or a session on bullying.

"There are ways to engage and harness the students in civic engagement without compromising policies in place on attendance, participation, and student safety," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate director for policy and advocacy.

Some schools have embraced the walkouts.

In Mooresville, Ind., administrators met with 10 high-school student leaders to work out a plan. Mooresville High School Principal Brian Disney said the students plan to use the school's public address system to read short statements about mental illness, the importance of kindness, and standing up against all school violence before inviting all students to gather in a school hallway for 17 minutes of silence.

In Anne Arundel County, Md., administrators are still talking with students about how they can participate without violating school rules.

"I think we all realize that for folks who are teenagers right now, this could well be a defining moment in their lives. We want to very much encourage and empower student voices. That said, it has to be done in ways that are safe and appropriate," said spokesman Bob Mosier.

Some schools are taking a middle ground, neither encouraging nor discouraging students from participating. In Henrico County, Va., near Richmond, administrators sent an email to parents saying they are not sanctioning the Wednesday walkout, but feel obligated to manage the event because of its heavy promotion on social media. Middle-school principals asked parents to sign a Google document stating whether they give their children permission to participate. Schools plan to provide campus locations for the walkout.

In Somerville, Mass., students say they won't stop after a single walkout. They've started a weekly movement they hope will keep public attention focused on school safety and put pressure on lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws. The walkouts will be held every Wednesday, said Anika Nayak, 16, a student organizer.

"We're really just fed up with the lack of action that's been taken in our country," Anika said.

"We don't think enough people are listening."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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