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As walkout date nears, safety is chief concern for school officials

Student Walkouts Gun Violence-1
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In this Feb. 28, 2018 photo, Somerville High School junior Megan Barnes marches with others during a student walkout at the school in Somerville, Mass. A large-scale, coordinated demonstration is planned for Wednesday, March 14, when organizers have called for a 17-minute school walkout nationwide to protest gun violence. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via AP)

Student Walkouts Gun Violence

By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector

Monday, March 12, 2018

School administrators say they are working to ensure the safety of students who might want to participate in a national event Wednesday to remember the victims of the Florida shooting and express their views about school safety and gun control.

The demonstration at 10 a.m. Wednesday falls one-month after 17 people were killed in a shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Organizers have carried out a national campaign on social media calling on students to walk out of class for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the 14 students and three staff members killed. 

There is a lot of chatter about the demonstration among students, said Cassidy Greene, Student Government Association president at North Pitt High School near Bethel. She doesn’t know of any demonstrations at her school, but said it’s good for students to be heard.

“It is important for students to express their concerns about school safety, because if you don't feel safe, you can't learn,” Greene said. “I think that students deserve to have their opinions heard; they are the ones affected.”

What’s known about demonstrations is varied from school to school, district to district. J.H. Rose High School in Greenville will allow students to demonstrate at a location within that school, for instance, and Perquimans High School in Hertford is allowing students to gather at its flag pole.

Rocky Mount-Nash County Schools were expected to make a statement on the matter today, and the Edgecombe County school board was scheduled to discuss the matter last night. 

Superintendents in Greene, Martin and other counties in the region said they will not take disciplinary action against students who participate, as long students have asked for permission.

“Students can express their First Amendment rights so there would be no repercussions for the walkout, itself,” Martin County Schools Superintendent Chris Mansfield said. “However, because we are conducting classes, students should get their parents’ permission to walk out so they aren't considered skipping class.”

Demonstrations have sprung up on school campuses around the country since Feb. 14, but Wednesday is the first large-scale, coordinated national demonstration. Student safety was the primary concern of each of the school officials interviewed at more than a dozen districts in the region.

Pitt County Schools Superintendent Ethan Lenker said he has met personally with every principal in the county and will allow them to decide how to handle demonstrations at the school level. Principals were advised to reference the Student Code of Conduct and work within the policy, Lenker said.

Cutting or skipping class is classified as a Level 1 offense under the policy and includes in-school interventions ranging from a verbal or written warning to in-school suspension, though specifics can sometimes vary from school to school.

“We have a policy in place,” Lenker said. “We went through that with our principals, read through it, looked at it and told our principals to work within the policy and go through there.”

He said he encouraged principals to work with their local Students Against Destructive Decisions and Student Government Association groups to seek alternatives on a school-by-school basis.

“We’re making sure that we’re bringing attention to the situation that the kids want to bring attention to but also trying to bring a positive approach to what they’re doing,” Lenker said.

He referenced a fundraiser at nearby Greene County Early College, where students will raise money to help the victims in Parkland rather than leave their classrooms.

Sneha Shah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said punishment can only go as far as what is stated in the district’s policy. She said she has heard from students from across the state in past weeks to better equip them with the knowledge of what is covered under the First Amendment. 

“Students do have First Amendment rights,” she said. “Schools can’t punish them more harshly for walking out than if they were to miss class. Schools also can’t punish students more harshly simply because they disagree with what they’re doing or their viewpoints.”

Martin County’s Mansfield agreed. “Throughout American history, citizens have used protests to state their opinions and/or concerns about which they care. Whether I believe it is or isn't appropriate is not really the question. Any time a citizen protests, I am hopeful it is conducted in a nonviolent manner.”

Farmville Central High School Principal Brad Johnston advocated against a walkout, saying that students should not put themselves in harm’s way in the name of advocating for safety. 

“Student safety is our No. 1 priority, and if you have 150-200 kids choose to walk out of a building at a given time, what does that do to the safety and security of the other students in the building and the staff that is on site?” he said. 

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.