It is in general a positive development to see so many young people across the nation speaking out against gun violence in the wake of the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Fla. After 15 of their peers and two adults were killed with a semiautomatic firearm, teens from California to Connecticut have demonstrated in favor of sensible gun control measures.
Their pleas have driven more discussion and even action on gun law reform and other school safety initiatives, at both state and federal levels, than adults have been able to muster in many years.
At the same time, the youths’ activism raises questions about how schools should handle walkouts or rallies that take place during school hours. Since the Florida tragedy, thousands of students have participated in peaceful demonstrations and walkouts from classes to demand stricter gun laws — including scores of young people who marched to the Minnesota State Capitol last week. Walkouts are planned nationwide for Wednesday, March 14, and a “March for our Lives” rally in Washington, D.C., is set for Saturday, March 24.
Complications arise because most states, Minnesota included, require students up to a certain age to be in school. Individual districts have rules regulating student absences. School officials must therefore balance the need to consistently enforce attendance and school assembly policies with students’ free speech rights.
They can strike that balance by evaluating each walkout plan on a case-by-case basis, and by clearly communicating rules and potential consequences for violations in advance. Given that student opinions about gun control vary (as do their views on other protest topics), school officials also must make it clear that neither the district nor any individual school is sponsoring any particular demonstration. Such gatherings ought to be organized and led by students, parents or other independent groups — not by teachers or school officials.
That’s consistent with the “student walkout considerations” letter the Minnesota School Boards Association sent to its members recently. While MSBA cannot direct districts’ actions, it does offer guidance. The statewide organization suggests that districts emphasize that protest events are not sponsored by the school district; that they review policies and procedures, and most importantly, that the discussion include staff, students, parents, law enforcement and media.
MSBA emphasizes clear communication to “build trust, reduce tension and promote safety and order.”
Minnesota schools have been dealing with the issue in various ways. In Bemidji, administrators told a teacher she could not lead a Wednesday student walkout. Other district leaders have ruled that students cannot participate in a walkout unless they have a parental request for an excused absence. And the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts are banning students who leave school grounds from returning and will count departures to protest as an unexcused absence.
“We don’t condone weekly or even monthly walkouts,” Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Ed Graff told a reporter. “[Students] have First Amendment rights, we respect and support those decisions made by them and families, but we also want to make it clear that within that we have practices on how we maintain a thoughtful and orderly environment in our schools.”
To balance order, consistency and reasonable flexibility, what’s key, as MSBA advises, is that districts communicate well with all stakeholders and make all aware of school policy and how it will be applied.