Commentary

Why We Didn't Allow the Students in Our District to Participate in the Walkout

—Getty

Some students in Bellefonte, Pa., chose to honor the Parkland shooting victims by defying their district

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Education leaders face challenges every day. We examine them through the lens of opportunity and strive to be proactive in solving problems before they materialize. We lead to serve, to build capacity, and to nurture hopes, dreams, and our children’s futures. Yet, we live in a time where we wake each day to a barrage of formidable responsibilities that politics and divisive behaviors only amplify. Among those are frequent acts of school violence. Many of us agonized—and continue to do so—following the Parkland school shooting, the student walkouts, and the tenuous struggle between encouraging civic activism and protecting our students’ safety. These gnaw at the essence of my being.

Faced with these challenges, we create opportunities; we shift paradigms. Despite our best efforts to make the best decisions, we will never be right in everyone’s eyes. That is the school leader's reality. Opinions surrounding the March 14th student walkout were varied. They represented a wide range of values and beliefs. But our school district runs on consensus, so it was important to me to make the decision about the walkout together with my district colleagues. We wanted to remain true to our priorities: school safety and the education of our students.

On March 5th, we sent home a letter to the parents and guardians of the 846 students in our district’s one high school, since these were primarily the students who would be walking out. We made it clear that if students chose to exit the building, they would face consequences as defined by our district’s code of conduct. And these would be the same consequences they would face for leaving the building on any other school day.

We made this decision for our district out of a concern for school safety. We were concerned about sending students outside at a specific time—the same time across the nation for all school walkouts. We were concerned that our students could be targets for someone who might do something extreme. After drafting our plan, we received a general guidance letter from our state department of education on the walkout. As it turned out, our plan aligned with the guidance: Meet with student leaders, prioritize safety, make this a teachable moment, communicate with stakeholders, articulate consequences for those who choose to walk out, and ensure students are respectful of the range of opinions.

When it came to last week’s walkout, each district leader employed the best strategy for the community that he or she serves. And all of us did this with our students’ best interests as our guiding tenet. No two school districts are the same, and no one plan fits the expectations of every community.

"Despite our best efforts to make the best decisions, [school leaders] will never be right in everyone’s eyes."

On the day of the march, the range of student responses to our district's decision varied widely. Almost 75 percent of the student body chose to remain in class. Some of them told their high school principal that they wanted to stay “in honor of the students who were killed because they can no longer go to classes.” A little more than 100 students attended a local career and technical institute, and some of those students participated in a 17-minute event in the cafeteria.

But there were also roughly 40 students who didn’t attend school that day. And another 40 students sent texts, emails, or called their legislators to voice their ideas and concerns during a planned event in the high school theater.

The administration held conversations with students on a number of occasions prior to March 14th. We listened to the students' ideas, and they became a part of the planning process. Many voiced their concerns about safety during the walkout. They also suggested alternatives, including specific acts of kindness. They would ask their peers to make 17 new friends, say 17 positive words to others, or do 17 acts of kindness.

But we also had students who chose to walk out—56 of them. During their walkout, they read aloud the biographies of the 17 students and staff members who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They shared their feelings and had a moment of silence.

I believe that the students who chose to walk out learned the act of civil disobedience. It is thoughtful, conscious, and makes a strong point, but it also has consequences. We are all held accountable for how we conduct ourselves within our families, communities, organizations, or for a civic purpose. Our students learned how to advocate for themselves. They spoke up, but they also accepted their detentions.

Following the walkout, a number of our high school students told their principal that they felt the administration “supported the rights of the students to peacefully protest.” They also demonstrated that they understood the complexity of the administration’s decision-making process. “You upheld that right with dignity, but you also upheld the integrity of your job and your duty to protect the students, and we find that as being one of the most honorable things one could do,” they told the principal.

These are divisive and confusing times; however, our students have a solid grasp of how complex things are right now. As education leaders, it is our responsibility to empower all of our young people. This was a learning moment for all of us. I can’t help but believe that because of our young people our future is bright.

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