When students said they would walk out of their Iowa City schools to call for action on climate change, then-Superintendent Stephen Murley didn’t panic or call on principals to lock the doors.
Instead, the district coordinated with local police to block traffic at busy intersections along the planned route of the 2019 march. Some parents and administrators volunteered to walk alongside the students—not to control them but to ensure they stayed safe. And school leaders made a plan to communicate with parents about their response.
“Obviously, we want kids in class,” Murley, now the superintendent of Green Bay, Wis., schools, said in an interview this week. “If they are not in class, we want to make sure that what they are doing is safe.”
When students walk out in protest over issues ranging from school policies to national political concerns, it can cause massive disruption and student safety challenges, three administrators with experience in such situations told Education Week. But, handled well, the protests can give students a chance to explore and understand their constitutional rights, express their fears, and process powerful emotions.
The key is building a culture of listening to students well before they choose to walk out and when they do leave the building, have plans in place to keep them safe. Educators must also be careful to remain impartial, regardless of the nature of students’ concerns, and to respect civil liberties in the process.
“We can be mad about it, or we can listen to it and hopefully learn from it and grow from it,” said Kenny Rodrequez, the superintendent of Grandview, Mo., schools, who communicated with students in advance of a 2018 demonstration.
Around the country, a surge of walkouts have tested educators in recent months, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increased urgency to use in-person class time to help students stay on track academically.
Students have left their classrooms to call attention to a variety of causes. In Douglas County, Colo., hundreds walked out Feb. 7 after the district’s school board voted to fire its superintendent. Oakland students walked out Feb. 1 to protest the planned closure of schools following enrollment declines. Students in Minnesota walked out Feb. 8 in response to the police killing of Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, as they carried out a no-knock warrant.
There’s no national data on student walkouts, but school administrators who spoke to Education Week said they’ve seen an increase in such demonstrations since the massive youth protests following the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That attack, which killed 17 people, quickly led to the biggest swell of youth activism in recent history.
Students in rural towns and urban districts left their schools— and adults paid attention.
“I think it showed students a lever they hadn’t had access to before,” said Murley, the Green Bay superintendent.
School administrators sometimes coordinate with student organizers
The October 2019 Iowa City walkout ended with a march to rally with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who herself had made global headlines by skipping school for “climate strikes” and was in town as part of a U.S. tour. But it was far from the first the district had seen. Previously, a group of middle schoolers in the liberal college town had walked out repeatedly to call for changes in school energy consumption.
Murley quickly learned that students were willing to share their plans beforehand if they believed school leaders respected their efforts. That gave adults time to coordinate with law enforcement and communicate with teachers.
“If the kids know that the building administrative team is not working to shut them down, they are far more likely to share their intention,” he said. “Before, it was ‘We need to hide this from the adults. We don’t want anyone to know, because if we do, they will stop it.’”
A variety of educational organizations have created resources on student walkouts — many in advance of a nationwide protest over gun violence in 2018.
- A guide from the Council of Chief State School Officers includes a template for a letter to families.
- A guide from the National Association of Secondary School Principals discusses how to handle discipline, safety, and media response.
- This student resource from the ACLU explains their rights to protest and walk out of school.
- A resource from the U.S. Department of Education cites lessons learned during school walkouts around the country.
- This story from Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk explores students’ constitutional rights in schools.
Administrators also worked with students in University City, Mo., where teens rushed to coordinate a demonstration 48 hours after the 2017 acquittal of white police officer Jason Stockley in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old Black man from St. Louis.
The region had seen massive protests following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, and students were still asking big questions about race and justice, Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley said.
But, because they knew administrators respected their grief, students approached them in advance, she said. With some feedback, they planned to leave school at the beginning of the day, to remain on school grounds, and to return to the classroom after a 15-minute gathering that included a moment of silence.
“We just created the space for them to really get their emotions out,” Hardin-Bartley said. “They were very angry. They were very hurt. And we just let them feel.”
Create a culture of student voice
Fostering trust and communication with students must be an ongoing effort, said Rodrequez, the Grandview superintendent, who worked with the students who walked out in the 2018 gun violence protests. His biggest concern that day was that gun rights activists might counterprotest, so he coordinated with city police to avoid potential confrontations.
“I think the goal is you have to prioritize the student conversations before you get to that point” of walking out, he said.
That means administrators should listen to student concerns, follow up to show the response, and create multiple avenues for feedback. When students pressed for more mental health support, for example, Grandview leaders coordinated with outside agencies to provide services, and they met with students to share their plans. They also changed simple things, like ending a tradition of different colors of graduation gowns for boys and girls, after students complained.
Murley, the Green Bay superintendent, said it’s important to listen to students, but it’s also important that educators aren’t seen as condoning their causes or favoring one political viewpoint over another in response to walkouts. For example, he informs students that they will face the same consequences for leaving school for a demonstration as they would for cutting class to sit in the park on a sunny day. During the climate walkout, for example, students had to deal with penalties for missed classroom work and absences.
Groups like the ACLU have made it clear that students have the First Amendment right to protest, but that doesn’t mean freedom from punishment.
“Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class,” the organization says in a guide for students. “But what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action.”
Educators should also make students aware of all of the venues for sharing their concerns, including speaking at school board and city council meetings, Murley said.
“I’ll be perfectly honest: This makes a lot of administrators really nervous,” he said. “‘You are going to encourage a kid to go to the school board meeting? Are you bananas? You don’t know what they are going to say.'…But I think what’s important for us to remember is that democracy is a messy process.”
Make a plan in advance
Whether or not school administrators know students are planning a demonstration, an established, districtwide plan can help prepare principals for all of the what-ifs if one occurs, district leaders said.
A variety of education groups made sample plans and templates in advance of the 2018 student demonstrations around the nation, weaving in input from school administrators. A guide from the Council of Chief State School Officers recommended states and school districts identify a contact to handle legal and logistical questions and offered sample messages to send to families in the event a protest grows disruptive. A guide from the National Association of Secondary School Principals tells school leaders how to attend to students who don’t participate and how to manage media attention. Civics groups offered a variety of lesson plans for teachers to use once students returned to the classroom.
The St. Paul, Minn., school district has a walkout plan that has evolved in recent years as students protested the police killings of Black men including George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Amir Locke, a district spokesperson said.
That guidance instructs principals to have staff passively monitor student demonstrators until they leave school property. It also includes a sample letter home to families that has been modified to include COVID-19 precautions.
Of course, it wouldn’t be practical for students to walk out constantly, superintendents stressed, but it’s important to recognize their rights when they do.
“I think that, when you try to control young people when they are very passionate about something, it’s not a healthy dynamic,” said Hardin-Bartley, the University City superintendent. “We want them to have a voice, and we also want to protect their learning time.”
“The in loco parentis thing has maybe encouraged us to do things to kids instead of with kids,” said Murley, the Green Bay superintendent. “I think that’s starting to change, and it can be an uncomfortable process.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as When Students Walk Out in Protest, Here’s What Administrators Should Do