AURORA | As schools around the country and in Aurora brace for student walkouts Wednesday following the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla., administrators 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.
Local schools run the gamut from tolerant to punitive as thousands of students decide whether to walk out in support of gun control.
Some school officials 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.
Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools are taking different tacts on how to handle planned student protests Wednesday. APS said in an email exchange with the Sentinel said that “(p)arents must call in to excuse students who choose to walk out or these absences will be marked as unexcused.”
Izzy Honey, an 18-year-old senior at RangeView High School, said she and other students would be participating in the walkout Wednesday. Honey said students at Rangeview had received supportive statements from school administrators that they wouldn’t face repercussions for protesting but students at other schools had said they’ve heard they could be suspended.
APS officials said only that the students walking out of class would receive unexcused absences for missing class if parents didn’t sign off.
“I’m almost daring them to suspend me. I don’t check my rights at the door. I carry my rights in the door when I walk into school,” Honey said. “This isn’t causing any harm to anyone. We absolutely have the right to have our voices heard.”
Honey said she and other students are walking out because the country has become numb to the idea of school shootings, and that in turn has led to inaction from political leaders. And while she wasn’t under any illusion that a single march would create massive change, Honey said so many protests could draw attention to the issue and eventually force lawmakers to pass restrictions on firearms like age limits and banning assault-style rifles.
It’s hard to tell if the energy students are bringing to the movement for gun control will have a lasting effect, said Tom Mauser, father of one of the victims of the Columbine High School shooting. But he was encouraged by the actions of students across the country and was cautiously optimistic.
“It’s very welcomed news. It’s encouraging because we haven’t seen something happen like this before, coming from the students speaking up the way they are,” Mauser said, whose also a member of Colorado Ceasefire. “We’re encouraging them right now. We’ve encouraged our members to cheer them on but at this point, it’s a student movement and we’re not going to try and co-opt that or say we have a better way.”
CCSD has taken a different route and sent an email last week to parents on the walkouts that didn’t endorse the actions but said students would be allowed to express their First Amendment rights.
“In Cherry Creek Schools, we respect the right of our students to exercise their First Amendment rights and express their opinions. Engaging in peaceful protest and advocating for a cause can be a powerful learning experience for students. We also recognize that our students hold a diverse range of views and some may not want to participate in a walkout. It is our responsibility to ensure all students feel safe and respected, no matter their viewpoint,” the March 6 emailed statement read in part. “We want you to know that the Cherry Creek School District does not endorse or host walkouts, nor does the district endorse any particular viewpoint or advocacy group. Our main concern with any potential student walkout is safety. To that end, principals are working with student leaders to create “safe zones” for students if they choose to participate.”
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, South Dakota, 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.”
AASA, a school superintendents association, has fielded dozens of calls and emails from school administrators asking for advice, while the American Civil Liberties Union 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, Indiana, 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, Maryland, 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 like CCSD, neither encouraging nor discouraging students from participating. In Henrico County, Virginia, 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, Massachusetts, 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,” Nayak said.
“We don’t think enough people are listening.”
DENISE LAVOI of the Associated Press contributed to this story.