Gabi Pittinger was in the school library when her mother texted: “Gabi there’s a shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”
Pittinger, 16, a sophomore at Eden Prairie High, knew people at that school, having recently moved from Parkland, Fla., Frantic, she scrolled through her Instagram and sent messages to everyone she knew there.
“My heart just felt heavy. I was filled with dread,” she recalled. “I was terrified and [thought] that all these people that I would hang out with every day for most of my life were lying down on a pavement dead.”
Pittinger later learned of a nationwide call to students and school staffs to honor the 17 victims by walking out of their schools for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. on March 14.
She ordered a “walkout tool kit” and mobilized more than 500 of her Eden Prairie High peers to participate. Students throughout the metro plan to walk out Wednesday.
Since the Florida shooting, countless students have staged peaceful rallies and walkouts from classes to support gun violence victims and demand stricter gun laws they say will keep them safer.
But with more student protests planned in the coming weeks — including the big “March for Our Lives” protest March 24 in Washington, D.C. — school officials find themselves walking a fine line, making sure they don’t violate students’ constitutional rights while upholding their own district policies.
School districts have issued statements to parents and school administrators making it clear that they do not endorse the protests, steering clear of suggesting any legal repercussions. Walkouts, school officials argue, pose safety concerns. And if officials were to endorse the protests, they risk tainting relationships with students whose views don’t align with their protesting peers.
In Bemidji, school administrators quashed a teacher’s plan to lead a walkout on Wednesday this week. The teacher, Gina Bernard, said the district told her it had received “complaints from the community” after her plans went public. The district told her: “No teacher had a right to disrupt the educational learning time.” But she insists on walking out, albeit before the school day.
In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, younger students are banned from exiting school for a protest unless a parent signs them out in person. High schoolers who join the protests are not granted staff supervision and are marked unexcused for the rest of the day. If school is still in session, however, students who choose to return are allowed back.
Both the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts are banning students who leave school grounds from returning, and administrators say they will count the departures to protest as an unexcused absence.
“We don’t condone weekly or even monthly walkouts,” Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said in an interview. “You do 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 thoughtful and orderly environment in our schools.”
In the past, Twin Cities students have left school to join protests over the Dakota Access pipeline and the Jamar Clark and Philando Castile shootings. Those experiences, officials say, have helped them tackle the walkout issue. But the recent student protests over gun control have presented challenges for districts because “it’s a national kind of effort and it’s around a specific time of day,” Graff said.
Edina Public Schools, which is tweaking its policy in response to a federal lawsuit it settled last week over students’ First Amendment rights, is asking parents and teachers not to impose their views on the protests. The district said it received requests to participate from some of its student groups and is looking into whether these walkouts are being organically led by students.
All school districts have made it clear that they will take disciplinary action against students if their behavior becomes disruptive.
Meanwhile, many of the state’s colleges, including the University of Minnesota, have reassured prospective students that participation in walkouts or being disciplined for protesting will not compromise their chances of getting admitted.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which has been tracking school responses to the walkouts, said schools need to prove student protests are resulting in material or substantial disruption to its systems in order to punish the students. The organization plans to issue a letter to school administrators defending students’ right to protest while cautioning school officials not to punish students more harshly than they would for other reasons.
“The schools have really got a choice whether they’re going to take a punitive attitude toward this or whether they’re going to take an educational attitude and really look at this as a chance for students to bring to life what they learned from the books that they have from civics courses,” said John B. Gordon, the ACLU chapter’s executive director.
Districts like St. Paul and Minneapolis are rolling out age-appropriate lesson plans on social issues and civic involvement to help teachers and students navigate those discussions.
Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, has sent out letters to its local union leaders directing them to coordinate with district officials to figure out what teachers’ roles on walkouts will be at their respective districts. The union advised its members who want to join the protest to do it on their own leave time.
“The students are leading in a way that’s inspiring,” said Denise Specht, the union’s president. “It’s a good idea to have adults present there — not to take over but to make sure that students are safe.”
Last week, an estimated 2,000 high schoolers poured out of their private and public schools, congregating at the Minnesota State Capitol grounds to demand action on gun control and school safety. Many in the large crowd did not face penalties from their school administrators.
“We have been growing up with the knowledge that we could be shot at any moment in school. We have had murder drills since kindergarten,” Pittinger said. “We’re [now] marching for our lives.”
Schools “have realized that this is going to happen,” she said, “and it’s going to happen in large numbers.”