Schools Respond to Student Walkouts With Mix of Discipline, Outreach

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As waves of students across the country staged walkouts and joined protests this week over proposed changes to federal immigration policy, superintendents and principals scrambled to keep them in school, or lure them back, using strategies that ranged from campus lockdowns to disciplinary measures and person-to-person pleas.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, Superintendent Roy Romer instructed all high schools and middle schools to enforce a lockdown of campuses earlier this week, after more than 24,000 students in 52 schools walked out on Monday.

High school students in Fairfield, Calif., march to City Hall after staging walkouts at their schools to protest federal legislation that would crack down on illegal immigration.
High school students in Fairfield, Calif., march to City Hall after staging walkouts at their schools to protest federal legislation that would crack down on illegal immigration.
—Christine Baker/AP

As in other districts around the country, officials from the 760,000-student system said they tried to respect students’ right to demonstrate, while also making it clear that they were violating compulsory-attendance policies, and possibly putting themselves in danger of being cited by local law enforcement for loitering or other infractions.

“There are a variety of ways to express their opinions,” Mr. Romer said in an e-mail to Education Week. “But, we cannot condone student walkouts that endanger their safety, and remove them from receiving instruction. There is a fine balance we must achieve here, but missing class is not the way to go.”

Several of the largest student walkouts took place in districts in the western and southwestern United States, in areas with heavy Latino student populations. The uproar centers on proposed federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigration. President Bush, by contrast, has proposed creating a temporary-worker program that would establish a means for those individuals to remain in the United States.

‘Tremendous Lessons Here’

School officials in Los Angeles and the 134,000-student San Diego city school district tried another tactic to encourage students to come back to school. Both districts sent fleets of buses to pick up students at rallies and gathering points, and bring them back to school. San Diego had more than 3,000 students walk out of school for protests on either Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, district spokeswoman Music McCall said.

At Metro Tech High School in Arizona, a total of about 400 students left the school on Monday and walked to the Arizona Capitol for a protest, taking an indirect, approximately four-mile route. Recognizing that they could not stop students from leaving, school officials asked them to take steps to protest safely, the school’s principal, Frank Rasmussen, said.

“We told the student leaders, ‘You’ve got a lot of young kids going with you,’ ” Mr. Rasmussen said, referring to freshmen and sophomores. “ ’They may not understand what this is about. Keep them safe.’ ”

The next day, Mr. Rasmussen said he called about 300 students for a meeting in the school’s auditorium, asking them not to leave school again, and warning them that school official would not countenance another walkout. The students, after discussing the possibility among themselves, decided to stay in school. The principal was pleased with the outcome. Most students who had walked out will be given a warning by school officials, he said. Only if they continued to miss school would officials consider stiffer penalties, such as in-school suspensions.

“They were wonderful and upbeat,” Mr. Rasmussen said of the student protesters’ response. “Democracy is not just something where you oppose someone. It’s something you work through, and know how to use the system. I think there have been tremendous lessons here.”

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