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Schools are trying to prevent students from joining the National School Walkout

Students plan to protest gun violence tomorrow, but how will schools respond?

Washington, D.C. area students and supporters protest against gun violence with a lie-in outside of the White House on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. (CREDIT: Getty Images/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Washington, D.C. area students and supporters protest against gun violence with a lie-in outside of the White House on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. (CREDIT: Getty Images/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Students across the nation will walk out of their schools on Wednesday to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting last month and to demand lawmakers to take action on gun control. But many schools are working to either forbid their activism or direct it in a way that they find appropriate — ignoring the way that activism has brought about change in this country’s history. 

According to CNN, walkout participants have a number of demands for Congress, including a ban on assault weapons, passage of universal background checks on gun sales, and a gun violence restraining order. The walkout is organized by the Women’s March Youth Empower group, and there will be more student walkouts focusing on gun violence in the next few weeks. The protest will start at 10 a.m. local time and will last for 17 minutes to honor the 17 victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

But a lot of schools want to dictate the way activism works. Some schools have responded to news of the protests by telling students there will be repercussions for their 17-minute action, while other schools have tried to convince students to participate in activities other than a walkout. Still others have ironically claimed that they are limiting protests over school safety and guns due to concerns about school safety.

Last month, the Washoe County School District in Nevada said it will mark students who walk out as tardy or penalize them with an unexcused absence. Other Nevada high school students have been told they will be threatened with suspension and have their diploma withheld, ACLU of Nevada Policy Director Holly Welborn said. The ACLU of Nevada said it is warning school districts about overstepping what the law dictates, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

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“The consequences for a student who engages in civil disobedience by missing class to attend a protest must be the same as a student who misses class for any other purpose,” Welborn told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Paso Robles Unified School District in California also said students will be sanctioned with an unexcused absence, the district told parents last week, according to the Tribune. “Courts have ruled that students do not have a free speech right to leave school to participate in protests. For this reason, absences are identified as unexcused,” Paso Robles Superintendent Chris Williams said earlier this month. He added that the protests would create a “potentially unsafe environment.”

In Texas, Needville Independent School District Superintendent Curtis Rhodes said students would be suspended for three days if they participated in a walkout, according to a Facebook post that has since been removed. NPR reached out to the district for an update this week and was told the district is still willing to suspend students. Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told NPR that because the district has threatened students with a punishment that appears to exceed a normal punishment for an unexcused absence, Needville may not be acting within its rights.

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., American University lecturer Daniel Lin said his child’s school had given each student detention for participating in the national walkout. “My child’s school gave detention to every student who participated in the walkout,” Lin tweeted. “The principal said protesting for greater school safety violated the rules about… wait for it… school safety.”

But even schools who aren’t harshly penalizing students are still trying to control their activism. 

One South Carolina school, Powdersville High School, said it will not allow students to protest and instead, students must participate in a discussion within their classrooms with their teachers and classmates about school safety,” according to the Charlotte Observer.

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Principal Chris Ferguson said in statement to press, “We recognize the right of students to free speech. We are committed to striking a proper balance between student expression and the school’s responsibility to ensure safety and order.” In an update to his statement, he added that the school is concerned students “are being told by outside groups what we should do and how we should react.”

School Administrative District 13, which is located in rural Maine, initially warned students not to protest, but now officials say they are providing students with a “compromise.” But the alternative the Superintendent Virginia Rebar offered would take away much of the point of the protest. Now, students can talk about their views on gun violence inside school but not outside of the school, according to the Associated Press. Rebar said the alternative “will allow students to voluntarily safely honor the victims and share their opinions.”

Other schools have taken a different approach to the protests. The Wake County school system said students will not be punished for protests, but only if they work with principals. “Participation in a peaceful protest wouldn’t qualify for disciplinary action,” Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman, told the News and Observer. In the Cincinnati area, Sycamore and Forest Hills high schools will let kids walk out for the protest but are providing “police protection” according to WLWT. Other schools are doing the same. In Rhode Island, South Kingstown High School said it will not sanction the walkout. There will be a police presence outside the school “to make sure that those students who do leave class are safe” according to Providence Journal. The Berkley School District in Michigan will not discipline students who walk out but there will be a police presence at the buildings.

But whether the school is promising a harsh punishment, providing an alternative to the walkout, or calling for police or school oversight, they are all missing the point.

Although schools may be acting within their rights, the most effective protests are usually disruptive in some way, whether it is disrupting the school day, a roadway, a day’s labor, or even a parade. By telling students one form of civic engagement is acceptable and another is not — like the school district that told students to write a letter to their representatives instead of joining the walkout — school officials are ignoring the nation’s rich history of protest and strikes. Many of those protests were not OK’d by officials or institutions or supported by the law.

Every time there is a public protest, activists are told that there is a better way to get their point across. Now, instead of tolerating a 17-minute disruption, schools have chosen to reinforce misconceptions about how protests work.

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Many schools are also telling students that they will endanger themselves by simply protesting outside for a few minutes, without telling them why that may be a possibility.

When sanitation workers went on strike in 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to support the workers. Police shot and killed a teenager and released tear gas into a church. When thousands of suffragists marched past the White House in 1913, they were physically assaulted. More recently, in 2011, police pepper-sprayed protesting students at University of California Davis who were simply sitting down to support Occupy Wall Street protesters. Last fall, police responded to peaceful protests in St. Louis over police brutality by showing up in riot gear and declaring them unlawful. And in Charlottesville last August, police simply watched as white supremacists and counter-protesters fought each other. Activists on Capitol Hill have repeatedly been arrested for demanding immigration reform and access to health care from lawmakers.

When schools say they want to protect students by offering a police presence, some appropriate questions are, “From who?” and “Who will protect protesters from police?”

But students will surely learn from these protests. They will learn that authority figures and institutions will always stand in the way of demonstrations and support police involvement in protest. They will learn that institutions will often step outside of legal boundaries to punish them and that it may take some time for them to receive any justice. They will also learn that some actions are worth the consequences to send a message that everyone in the nation will hear.