Students across the nation — including here in southwest Ohio — are expected to walk out of school Wednesday, drawing attention to the issues of school safety and gun control that have dominated public debate since the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school.
Wednesday’s demonstrations and others scheduled for coming days could be among the largest, most organized by American students in the nation’s history.
The walkouts are organized with a variety of intentions, all sparked by the slaughter of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Some are geared expressly toward more strict gun control, such as ones organized by the Women’s March group, while others are aimed at memorializing the dead in as non-political a manner as possible.
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“We’re protesting Congress’ lack of action to protect students in schools,” Meigan Karolak, a Fairmont High School sophomore, recently told this newspaper.
Others, like Logan Cole, the student who was shot and injured last year at West Liberty-Salem High School, said he would not participate in walkouts organized in the name of the Women’s March group, instead opting to organize a memorial for the Florida dead.
“I feel like it’s a little simplistic to look at this and point out gun control as the problem,” Cole said. “I feel like it’s disrespectful to the students of the Parkland shooting to go and use their tragedy to further a certain group’s political agenda.”
Students at Madison High School in Butler County, where four were hurt in a 2016 cafeteria shooting, are encouraged by student council today to wear maroon, burgundy and silver, the team colors of the Florida high school.
National demonstrations are also planned for March 24, with a march on Washington, D.C.; and on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.
A march at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus will also be held today.
“We’re expecting between 200-250 Ohio high schoolers to come to the Statehouse,” said Micah Kraus, a senior at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati who helped organize the march. “After the parkland shooting and seeing how the students in Florida reacted, and especially seeing them go to Tallahassee and seeing them lobby at the statehouse in Florida, we saw that and realized, what’s stopping us from doing that in Ohio?”
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In an open letter to school administrators, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio this week cautioned schools against infringing on the First Amendment rights of students who protest.
Linking the walkouts with protests of past generations — “students have been a driving force for social justice, perhaps most visibly in advancing the Civil Rights Movement and in ending the Vietnam War, among other examples” — the ACLU issued a clear warning.
“As students plan walkouts to press for changes in social policy, please bear firmly in mind: The Constitution forbids disciplining students more harshly for politically motivated conduct,” ACLU of Ohio Executive Director J. Bennett Guess wrote. “The ACLU of Ohio may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishment because of their political beliefs.”
Guess encouraged school officials to “seize this as a teachable moment by nurturing students’ commitment to social action by removing barriers to their participation.”
“Public schools are essential in educating young people about democracy, and that includes their role in enacting it,” he wrote.
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.
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