Student Walkouts and Election Day: What Schools Should Know

By Evie Blad — November 02, 2018 3 min read
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High school and college students around the country are organizing class walkouts on election day this Tuesday. Their efforts, which mimic large youth walkouts in the spring, aim to draw attention to their concerns about gun violence and to encourage young people to vote.

Students pouring out of classrooms can create some logisitical challenges and safety concerns for schools. Here’s what administrators should know.

Why are students walking out on election day?

The walkouts are organized by a group of youth-led gun violence and climate change organizations called the Future Coalition.

The walkout plans follow months of activism and voter registration efforts aimed at teens and young adults, who typically have anemic turnout, especially in midterm elections.

“On November 6th, the voice of young people in this country will be heard loud and clear when we cast our ballots together,” David Hogg said in a press release about the walkouts. Hogg helped found March for Our Lives, an anti-gun violence organization, after he survived the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. “You will hear us marching to the polls, and you will see the impact we have when we cast our ballots. And we’ll make this impact because we’re not afraid to work together to make it happen. The youth movement isn’t about one issue or one group. It’s about working together for a better future.”

Do students at my school plan to walk out on election day?

Organizers have invited students around the country to add their planned walkouts to a searchable map, which you can explore by clicking on the image below.

It’s hard to predict whether the election day walkouts will come anywhere close to matching the student-led efforts last spring, especially at the high school level. Voting-age students obviously make up a small portion of K-12 enrollment, but younger students may participate as well.

Can schools discipline students for walking out?

Education Week‘s Denisa Superville wrote a helpful guide on student walkouts in February that provides some advice for administrators about issues like safety and discipline.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals advised teachers and principals not to endorse or participate in walkouts, Superville wrote.

“Specifically in the case of a walkout, school officials’ participation sets a harmful precedent for endorsing a flagrant violation of school or district policy,” the group wrote in a February blog on its website. “Moreover, students with differing views might feel alienated or compelled to participate against their will if school officials are perceived as supporting the protest. Teachers can, however, reduce the negative academic effects of the protest by, for instance, not assigning tests or work that cannot be made up if an absence is unexcused. More appropriately, teachers can provide opportunities for remaining students to have their voices heard as well by writing a letter to a legislator, leading a structured conversation about the topic of protest, and so forth.”

Administrators should work to keep students safe, away from busy streets, and on campus if possible, the organization advised.

Educators should also remind students that, although they have the right to walk out, they may also face consequences for doing so, education organizations have said.

The bottom line: Schools must issue the same discipline to students who walk out for political reasons (regardless of the cause) as they would for students who leave the building without permission for any other reason, the ACLU says.

“Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class,” the organization advises students. “But what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action.”

Photo: Millbrook High School students demonstrate against gun violence outside their school in Frederick County, Va., on Feb. 21, following a school shooting in which 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. --Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.