Ever since a handful of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students emerged on the national scene after the mass shooting at their Florida school, educators across the U.S. and Ohio have faced the prospect of handling what is arguably the most widespread and organized series of American high school protests in decades.
The displays — a series of walkouts on several dates at hundreds of high schools — pose challenges for administrators charged with balancing students’ First Amendment rights with the need to keep school safe and orderly.
To understand how local districts have responded to student walkouts, the Dayton Daily News used Ohio’s public records law to obtain nearly 90 pages of emails exchanged between area administrators, parents, teachers and students at districts where walkouts are planned or have already happened.
The emails reveal a candid back-and-forth between school superintendents facing a common conundrum: How should districts handle this new-found activism gripping their students?
“Any ideas you have would be great,” Troy Superintendent Eric Herman wrote in an email to Tipp City Superintendent Gretta Kumpf. “This shooting has made everyone very sensitive while also making them feel helpless as what to do.”
Administrators’ chief concern involved how to keep students safe when, as is expected during walkouts in coming weeks, they’ll exit schools at a predetermined and publicized time and place.
“I don’t mean to be paranoid, but this seems like an opportune time for someone who means ill to take advantage of a scheduled time for a mass gathering of students,” wrote Dayton Regional STEM School Superintendent Robin Fisher in an email.
Fisher worked with the students to establish parameters for the walkout. She also asked the Kettering Police Department to provide security, and the department parked two officers in cars outside the public school.
Other superintendents shared near identical concerns.
“I would not feel comfortable taking kids outside while posting an exact time when they will be outside,” Troy’s Herman wrote Tipp City’s Kumpf. “It seems like that might make them an easy target for anyone wanting to do them harm.”
In a follow up interview with the newspaper, Herman acknowledged students regularly exit school at predetermined times, such as dismissal and recess. But he said just because these times are unavoidable doesn’t mean they are less difficult.
“I have a hard time putting kids out there,” Herman said. “It’s tough at the beginning of the morning and the end of the day.”
The balancing act
Kumpf and Herman considered several ideas they could present to students as alternatives to walkouts, including a moment of silence, a school assembly, lessons on school safety, debating gun control and encouraging students to write lawmakers. Both educators reiterated support for their students’ free speech rights.
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” but also recognized the need to prevent substantial disruption to the educational process.
Frank LoMonte, a Student Press Law Center senior legal fellow, said once students interfere with the orderly operation of the school, they’ve forfeited the protection of the First Amendment. He said educators face a tough balancing act between encouraging students to engage in civic life and repeatedly cancelling class due to walkouts.
“I completely understand that the whole point of walking out of school is to make a dramatic statement, and it doesn’t make the same statement if the students just quietly write letters to their members of Congress,” LoMonte told the Daily News by email. “The effectiveness of ‘civil disobedience’ has always depended on a willingness to throw yourself in the way, whether that is sitting-in at a lunch counter or occupying the university president’s office.
“But that also means accepting that disciplinary or even legal consequences may result,” LoMonte said.
‘Please don’t overdo’
Herman said he would not punish Troy students who participate peacefully in walkouts, instead telling school principals not to physically stop the students and “escort them out if need be — supervise them — and return them into the buildings.”
“Please don’t overdo,” he wrote in an email to principals.
Other schools decided discipline would need to be enforced should students choose to walk out. In an email to Kumpf, Miami Valley Career Technology Center Superintendent Nick Weldy expressed his initial concerns.
“Did you discipline them?” Weldy asked Kumpf after a Tippecanoe High School walkout. “That is how I am leaning because I worry more protest will follow. For example, a pro-gun protest.”
Weldy later told the Daily News he decided the district would enforce discipline measures. But he said no students walked out after he sent a school-wide email asking the student body to complete a survey “with ways we can coordinate our efforts and make sure we make an impact together.”
“Although a walkout may seem like a way to have your voice heard, I would ask you to think about alternative methods where all of our voices can be heard,” he wrote.
LoMonte recognized some schools might attempt to deter future walkouts by taking a hard stance against them.
“The only caution is that schools must impose consequences in a viewpoint-neutral way, so the political ideology of the school board or the community at large can play no part in the decision,” he wrote.
Praise and pushback
The emails also reveal a divide among parents about how school districts are handling the walkouts.
“As we … groom these teenagers into functioning, independent thinking, adults, moments like this become an important life lesson,” a Tipp City parent wrote Kumpf. “This is a complex issue, but allowing the students to peacefully protest shows them that they are heard and supported.”
Not all feedback was positive, however, as some parents and at least one Tipp City school board member voiced concern.
“As far as future walk outs are concerned, we need these people to do it on their own time and quit disrupting the classes,” wrote another parent in an email to Tipp City school administrators. “These kids have minimal civil rights until they turn 18. Your obligation and concern is for their safety and education. Nothing else.”
Corine Doll, a Tipp City school board member, wrote Kumpf she did “not think the school should be giving minor students the right to participate in political events without their parents … permission.”
“I am also concerned with how our community may perceive this,” Doll wrote. “We are getting ready to ask them for levy money.”
Doll did not immediately respond to a Daily News request seeking additional comment.
Underpinning the emails is a constant reiteration that students — the peers of many of those who, across the country in Florida, were killed on Valentine’s Day — are the ones organizing the walkouts.
“This movement is actually non political,” one Dayton Regional STEM School student wrote Fisher, the superintendent. “It is also a way for us to call out our entire government whether democratic or republican, that something needs to happen.”
Other students echoed similar motivations, the emails show.
“After recent events in Florida, I believe we need to stand for the victims and stand against violence,” another student wrote Fisher. “We are one of the very few countries to have this happen, and we need to be the generation that ends it. This starts with unity, there is organization over tons of schools across the nation … we need to participate in this.”
“We want to walk out of school in honor of those who didn’t get to walk out of theirs.”
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