School districts plan alternatives to National School Walkout

NEW HAVEN — As students across the nation plan to walk out for 17 minutes Wednesday morning to protest what is seen as legislators’ inability to act on gun violence, local school districts are preemptively controlling the event.

The National School Walkout is a planned nationwide protest, during which students plan to leave their schools for 17 minutes — one minute for every person killed in a shooting massacre one month prior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — at 10 a.m. in every time zone.

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said whether students are allowed to walk out depends on the policy of local boards of education.

“Some boards of education by policy explicitly say a student walkout will result in disciplinary action, regardless of the reason,” she said. “Others put it in the hands of the building principal.”

Although McCarthy said, depending on local policy, a walkout is “not an absolute violation,” in a letter sent to every superintendent of schools and school board president, CABE and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents warned that the planned walkouts would be disruptive to students’ education.

“While the challenges of planning an appropriate and effective response are significant, the underlying legal principles are clear: neither students nor staff have the right to engage in activities that disrupt the educational process, as the planned walkouts certainly would,” the organizations wrote.

Ahead of the planned walkout, American Civil Liberties Union updated its primer on students’ First Amendment rights, informing students they do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they enter school, but schools are within their rights to discipline students for missing class.

“[W]hat they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action,” the ACLU wrote.

McCarthy said CABE and CAPSS are encouraging school officials to communicate with students and the community to collaborate on a protest. She said, depending on the interest level of the community in protesting, school officials are encouraged to host a “walk-in” or alternative educational program.

In Wallingford, Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo said the two high schools have six alternative programs within the school buildings for 17 minutes to prevent students from walking out, which would result in suspension as a possible punishment.

One of these programs is 17 minutes of silence in the second period class, which is what the nationwide protest encourages students to do outside the school building.

“We want our students in school where we can keep them safe while facilitating their participation in the educational program. Should a student walk out on this day, disciplinary consequences will be imposed in accordance with Board of Education policy,” Menzo wrote in a letter to parents.

The district is also offering high school students the chance to write letters, meditate, discuss the event in a group, study or register to vote for those 17 minutes.

“The information outlined in this letter was based on a convening of over 50 students from the two high schools,” Menzo wrote in an email. “They were mindful of the need to demonstrate compassion while also being safe. In addition, their ideas are slated to act as a framework for continued conversation on the topics they identified of mental health, school safety, and federal legislation.”

Dana Paredes, assistant principal at West Haven High School, said students approached the administration on how they wanted to observe Wednesday’s walkout.

“It’s all student-led, it’s what the students wanted to do,” she said.

At 10 a.m., the students will walk to the football field with a group of students in the center, and every minute for 17 minutes a name will be read of a victim in the Florida massacre and the speaker will chime a bell.

“We’re very supportive, and we really feel that the kids have gone about this the right way,” Paredes said. “It’s being done in a safe and organized manner; we asked for an increased police presence. We are supporting them because they’ve done everything the right way.”

Hamlet Hernandez, superintendent of the Branford Public Schools, said he is proud of the students for being civically engaged, and the school will offer them 17 minutes to speak about gun violence, school security, gun control, mental health “and maybe even broader topics.”

“We don’t censor our kids,” he said.

He said he does not anticipate students walking off school grounds, “and if that’s what they choose to do, it’s what they choose to do, and it will be handled accordingly.”

He said the students have been working with administration for more than two weeks on making the moment meaningful.

“I think it’s a great event. There’s a way to do it that is more powerful than other ways of doing it, and our kids have really taken the lead on this,” he said.

In a letter to parents, Madison Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice said the district would “honor all individual students at the high school” and participation in a program is not mandatory. In his statement, however, he avoided mentioning the walkout and whether there would be consequences.

“March 14 has been identified nationally as a day for students to make a statement,” Scarice wrote. “Again, I have complete confidence that our students will represent our community well and make us all very proud of their efforts.”

New Haven Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark said the Elm City’s schools have planned activities in lieu of condoning student walkouts.

“We’re confident in the collaborative fashion and, frankly the responsible fashion, in how the students and the staff have looked at this seriously,” he said.

If there were a “violation of school rules,” he said, it would be “something the school has to consider.”

New Haven’s schools, he said, place an emphasis on restorative practices .

“I think it’s really been a collaborative effort, and the Police Department and security is involved as well to make sure we’re supportive of students and faculty who want to express their voice, but in a safe and responsible way,” he said.

Tyler Felson and Brendan O’Callahan, seniors at Guilford High School, said they met with school administration Monday to ensure the political nature of the school’s planned event is not neutered.

“The principal’s job is to keep us safe,” Felson said. “He knows we wouldn’t do anything derogatory and be in good faith.”

Felson and O’Callahan’s concern is that “thoughts and prayers are well and good, but they are not enough,” he said.

“We wanted to make sure any student that wants to speak their mind about this issue feels safe to do so,” Felson said. “The administration is on our side, but they have to play devil’s advocate for a lot of it and do their job. They don’t want political fights breaking out.”

O’Callahan said the issue is important for young people, even in the state of Connecticut.

“We have some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but bump stocks and ghost guns are still legal,” he said. “People have to be reminded it’s an issue in Connecticut.”

Banning bump stocks and ghost guns — which both circumnavigate restrictions on semi-automatic weapons — is a priority for Democrats this legislative session.

“In this movement we are completely against fueling hatred. The youth don’t want to add to that, but what we do have is anger, and I think that’s definitely called for at a time like this, and we’re trying to use that anger as a motivator for change,” Felson said.

In a tweet Monday President Donald Trump said there is “not much political support (to put it mildly)” for raising the age for the purchase of certain firearms from 18 to 21. He rejected the idea of making schools “gun free zones,” calling it an “open invitation to enter” and expressed that states should be allowed to decide whether “expert teachers” conceal carry.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. criticized Trump’s lack of “political courage” in a tweet and said “a groundswell of grassroots energy — led by students” must move Congress to action.

In a statement, Gov. Dannel Malloy said Trump was “grossly negligent and dangerously ill-informed.”

“In Connecticut, we serve as an example that it is possible to fortify our schools without turning them into fortresses,” he said.

McCarthy said walkouts in Connecticut are not unprecedented, and the “school environment is a unique environment.”

Although the conversation about gun violence has inflicted trauma on some students and being disciplined might exacerbate that trauma, she said educators must ensure education continues.

“Something that is seriously disruptive of that process, they really have no choice but to impose discipline,” she said.