Why some schools are suspending kids for joining gun control walkouts

Rachel Bertsche
Writer
Yahoo Lifestyle

Students across the country participated in school walkouts this week to demand action on gun violence, and two more widespread walkouts are planned for the next two months — on March 14, to mark one month since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. (A major Washington, D.C., demonstration, the March for Our Lives, is set for March 24.)

The protests are drawing attention not just for their impassioned plea, but for the ways in which various school districts are reacting to the organized action.

Students expressing anger over gun violence in the form of protests are being met with disciplinary action at some schools. (Photo: Getty Images)
Students expressing anger over gun violence in the form of protests are being met with disciplinary action at some schools. (Photo: Getty Images)

Consequences for students participating in walkouts have been drastically different across the country. At Needville High School in Texas, students were threatened with a three-day suspension if they participated in the walkouts, according to a note posted on the school’s Facebook page by Needville Independent School District superintendent Curtis Rhodes.

“The Needville ISD is very sensitive to violence in schools, including the recent incident in Florida,” the note said. “There is a ‘movement’ attempting to stage walkouts/disruptions of the school through social media and/or media outlets. Please be advised that the Needville ISD will not allow a student demonstration during school hours for any type of protest or awareness!! Should students choose to do so, they will be suspected from school for 3 days and face all the consequences that come along with an out of school suspension.”

The school’s Facebook page has since been taken down, but the note, which went viral after it was posted on Tuesday, was captured in screengrabs. “Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative. We will discipline no matter if it is one, fifty, or five hundred students involved,” Rhodes wrote, adding that even those who had notes from parents would not be spared from discipline, and asking the community to understand that “we are here for an education and not a political protest.”

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Other school districts made similar threats. According to the Los Angeles Times, Steven Walts, superintendent of Prince William County (Va.) Public Schools, wrote an email to parents and students noting that there would be “disciplinary consequences” for “students who cause disruptions or leave school without authorization.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Jerry Kalina, principal of Papillion-La Vista High School in Omaha, Neb., joined his students for a 17-minute walkout on Wednesday, one minute for each of the Parkland victims. “I thought if kids are going to walk out, I want it to be controlled, and I want it to be a respectful situation in which our kids focus on the victims and their families,” Kalina tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So I got on the intercom and we took a moment of silence for the victims, and I told the students that if they plan to walk out, that was their choice and they wouldn’t get in trouble.”

When the bell rang to end the class period at 11:55, Kalina says, about 250 kids joined him outside in 18-degree weather. “I roamed around the crowd — kids were worried, they had looks on their faces I hadn’t seen before,” he says. “I wanted to let them know that we are here for them, and to show some compassion and love. I didn’t want to be a dictator; I wanted students to know that hopefully this is the start of something that will create change.”

In St. Charles, Ill., administrators took a similar approach. “Once we were made aware of the walkout, the high school principal sent a message to staff saying that if a student tells you they are walking out, please allow them to do so,” Carol Smith, St. Charles School District 303 spokesperson, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We made sure there was supervision. Students met under the flagpole. They had conversations about what this meant, and when the 17 minutes were up they went back to school.”

Smith says that at St. Charles North High School, about 27 students participated in the walkout, and at St. Charles East, there were between 150 and 200. That discrepancy, Smith says, is likely because two St. Charles East students were killed as a result of gun violence just last year. “It’s been very, very difficult, so these students understood what they were doing,” she says. “As one of our students said, ‘We may not be able to vote yet, but we’re a movement. We’re starting to show people that we care and that we can make a difference.’ As a school district, how can we say no to that? How can we discourage them from doing something they are passionate about and they feel can make a difference [about] on a national level?”

Plenty of schools seem to still be hashing out how they will handle the upcoming walkouts. On Tuesday, Todd Gray, the superintendent of the Waukesha School District in Wisconsin, sent an email suggesting that those who participated in a walkout would face disciplinary action, according to the Journal Sentinel. By Wednesday, Gray had amended his message, explaining that students would be allowed to participate if given permission by a parent.

Legally, schools can discipline students who ditch class for any reason, according to a blog post by Vera Eidelman, a William J. Brennan fellow with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “But what the school can’t do is discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don’t support the views behind the protest,” she writes. “In other words, any disciplinary action for walking out cannot be a response to the content of the protest.”

Much of the backlash against Rhodes, the Texas superintendent who threatened suspension, seemed to be the result of the content of his message. “It’s a quintessential First Amendment violation, and most Americans have an instinct about that,” Georgetown Law professor Heidi Li Feldman told the Washington Post. “What’s really weird about this is that they announced they will suspend people over the content of their off-campus protest. Content-based restrictions on speech are anathema to the First Amendment. So this looks like a total problem.”

Back in Omaha, meanwhile, Kalina says he believes that any good school administrator should react to specific situations rather than apply a blanket rule as moments like these come up.

“You have to use the common sense approach; you have to be compassionate. I could sense even as our day started on Wednesday that things were different; they’ve been different since this happened. Kids seem on edge,” he says, noting that 17 minutes of the school day wouldn’t be especially disruptive to a school that goes through seven five-minute class changes a day. “Young people need to be heard; we have to trust them and give them boundaries and a controlled setting and let them know that we’re here for them. I didn’t want to talk suspension and punishment — that’s not what my students needed to hear. They needed to hear the opposite — that they will be taken seriously, and they will be safe.”

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