School Climate & Safety

This Week’s Nationwide Student Walkout: 6 Things to Know

By Denisa R. Superville — March 12, 2018 6 min read
Student Madison Flores, 17, participates in a walkout and demonstration for gun control at Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 23.
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On March 14, thousands of students across the country are expected to walk out of class or participate in events tied to what’s billed as ENOUGH: National School Walkout.

The Women’s March Youth Empower, the organizer of the event, is asking students to stage the protest at 10 a.m. in each time zone—on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 students and educators. Organizers are calling for students to stay out of class for 17 minutes—one minute for each person killed in the shooting.

The dominant call for action tied to the national walkout is for stricter gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and expanded background checks for prospective gun-buyers. Inspired by the activism of a small, but vocal group of student survivors from Stoneman Douglas, students across the U.S. have already staged dozens of walkouts in the weeks since the Feb. 14 mass shooting.

1.) What steps are district and school leaders taking to either allow or prevent students from participating in walkouts related to gun violence/school shootings?

Ever since the first calls for a mass walkout appeared, K-12 administrators have been trying to figure out how they will respond. And their answers are all over the map.

They have ranged from outright bans and threats of suspensions, to pledges to monitor students who leave class to ensure they are safe.

Some districts see the walkout as an opportunity to engage their students in civic activism and are encouraging them to spend the 17 minutes discussing mental health, school safety, and gun violence, or writing letters about those issues to their local, state, and federal representatives.

But with districts on high alert since the mass shootings at Stoneman Douglas—and the countless threats to schools across the country that have followed in the weeks since—safety is the chief reason that many administrators say they want to keep students on campus during the National Walkout.

Here’s a sampling of how districts are saying they will handle walkouts:

In Harford County, Md., Superintendent Barbara Canavan explicitly banned students from walking out and said that those who do so will be disciplined, though she did not specify how. Caravan cited public safety, saying the district does not have enough staff and resources to protect children who leave school for a walkout. She said the district will disseminate a “learning module” to give students the opportunity to air their thoughts about recent events and discuss solutions.

In Santa Fe., N.M., the school board voted 4-1 to support students and teachers who want to participate in the walkout.

And in Boston, school leaders are organizing on-campus events for students. But the district has also spelled out its policy for students who want to participate in a walkout. Students who do not return to class after the 17 minutes will be marked as absent, but they will be allowed to make up classwork they miss. Parents can get permission for early dismissal for students who want to leave campus, while students who are 16 or older can leave school without parental permission.

2.) What are the different forms the walkouts might take?

Many districts are working with student leaders, teachers, and principals to find ways to incorporate discussions about gun violence, school safety, and mental health into their lessons on March 14.

Some districts that have banned the walkouts are promoting in-class discussions as alternatives.

In Maryland’s Allegany County school district, for example, student council leaders have come up with ways to participate in the national event while staying on campus. At Allegany High School, students will place 17 desks with the names of the Parkland, Fla., victims in the gym. There will also be a forum for students to discuss the importance of student voice.

At Charlestown High School in Charlestown, Ind., students will leave class at 10 a.m. and convene in the school’s auditorium for a moment of silence for school shooting victims. There will also be a student-led discussion on student safety, and the campus’ school resource officer will discuss how to report concerning incidents to school officials and law enforcement.

3.)What happens if a student walks out and gets hurt? Is the district legally responsible?

School districts are generally responsible for the safety and welfare of students during the school day—a principle called in loco parentis.

If students leave their classrooms but remain on campus during the walkout—on the front lawn or near the flag pole, for example—the school district is responsible for the students’ safety and welfare.

If the walkout is a district-sanctioned event where students remain in the school’s custody—say, for example, the district promises to have teachers accompany students during an off-campus march to City Hall or the statehouse—then the district could be held liable if a student gets hurt in the process.

In cases where students leave campus with permission from their parents—an excused absence—the school districts are not likely to be held responsible if a student were to get hurt while engaging in activities related to a walkout, said Francisco Negrón, Jr., the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association.

Negrón said if an older student leaves without parental permission—the equivalent of an unexcused absence or skipping class—it would be difficult to argue that the district is responsible since he or she would not have been under the district’s supervision at that point.

“We are really talking about the control that the schools have over the students, and the actual real supervision that they have—that’s what would trigger a responsibility,” he said.

4.) Can students be disciplined for walking out?

Yes.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, districts can discipline students for violating school policy around disruptions if the protest interrupts the educational environment. Schools can also discipline students for cutting class. But administrators cannot levy harsher punishment for students who participate in the walkouts than they would for a similar violation of school policy.

“It’s hard to say there is a one-size-fits-all rule for the entire country, because it depends on what the existing policies in a state or district are,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s national office. “The real key is whether the schools are imposing harsher penalties on the kids who walk out for this protest as opposed to kids who are absent for any other reason.”

The ACLU is encouraging students to read their district’s policies on unexcused absences, suspensions, and truancy. It has sent letters to school officials in the Needville school district in Texas and the Prince William County district in Virginia where administrators had pledged strict penalties for participation. In response to questions from parents and students, the ACLU also sent open letters to educators in New Jersey and Georgia, outlining students’ rights to protest. The ACLU is also advising districts to work with student leaders to use the walkouts as a teachable moment.

5.) What can happen to teachers who walk out?

Teachers are in a slightly different position. While they do have protected First Amendment rights at school, they also have to follow the requirements of their job.

6.) How can schools accommodate students who don’t participate and/or don’t agree with the politics behind the walkouts?

Some districts where events are planned are also making it clear that students can opt out. In Allegany County, Md., students and staff members who don’t want to take part can spend time in school libraries engaged in alternative activities.

In its guidance to educators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals stressed that principals and teachers should not participate in the walkouts because that decision could alienate students who may not agree with the protests. Participating in a walkout could also send a message to students that educators are endorsing a violation of school policy.

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