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School walkouts: Central Pa. struggles with free speech vs. chaotic protest

Written by Gordon Rago/The York Daily Record | Mar 8, 2018 6:01 PM
students protest.jpg

School students from Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, rally in solidarity with those affected by the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(Undated) -- School districts across central Pennsylvania are grappling with next week's national student walkout -- should they let students leave class for an event that calls for measures to reduce school shootings, or should they insist that students stay in class?

The walkout will mark the one-month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre. The shooting at the Parkland, Fla., high school sparked widespread debate about tighter gun laws, and students have been among the loudest of those speaking up.

The Valentine's Day shooting also resulted in the 17-minute walkout -- one minute for each person killed -- planned for 10 a.m. on March 14.

The event is meant to "protest Congress' inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods," according to the event's website

In a recent op-ed in LancasterOnline, one local Congressman said that common sense, not hyperbole, needs to guide gun debate.

One of the measures U.S Rep. Lloyd Smucker said he supports was re-evaluating bump stocks to determine if they violate existing law banning fully automatic weapons.

"If a device makes a semi-automatic operate like a fully automatic weapon, it should be illegal," Smucker wrote. "I'm glad President Donald Trump is taking action to get rid of bump stocks."

In some schools around central Pennsylvania, school administrators have been meeting to discuss how best to handle the potential of having hundreds of kids leaving class and going outside.

Some current and former administrators said the event raises unique concerns. They say there's a need to balance respecting students' First Amendment rights, keeping kids safe, not breaking the rules of skipping class and not appearing to take a side on what can be viewed as a political issue.

Moreover, one former administrator said, school shootings dating back to the 1990s have already pushed schools to implement more stringent security measures. The most basic of which was to ensure people couldn't walk freely in and out of the building and keeping exterior doors locked.

"We've been trying to lock the doors," said Bradford Little, a retired associate principal and educator at Central York High School. "I would say I would not want to open the doors."

One York County school will not let students go outside Wednesday morning, but will allow students to walk into their school's gymnasium at 10 a.m.

In Franklin County, students at Waynesboro Area School District who walk out of class will be considered disruptive and may be disciplined. Instead, the district says students have the opportunity to participate in a class discussion.

There are other high schools across the country that are not recognizing the walkout and some that plan to discipline students who participate, USA TODAY reported.

Harford County Public School students in Maryland won't be allowed to walk out of class but will instead be presented a "learning module" through which they can express their opinions, the Baltimore Sun reported.

The event's website lists about a dozen schools in central Pennsylvania who are participating, with the most, eight, in Lancaster County. 

One York County school -- Dallastown Area High School -- is listed on the event page's website as participating. But officials there have declined to comment about how the district is approaching the walkout.

Beyond those schools, other York County students have expressed interest, and districts are working with them to find a middle ground.

On Tuesday night, for example, Dover Area School District parents and teachers received an email detailing how the school would handle March 14.

At 10 a.m., if students choose, they can "proceed respectfully" to their school's gym where administrators will be waiting to supervise them.

After the 17 minutes is up, the students will have five minutes to get back to class. They also will be responsible for any work missed. 

"Students will not be permitted to leave the building out of safety and security concerns," the email states. "A student choosing to leave the building will be in violation of the code of conduct and will be subject to the consequences associated with such actions."

There had been rumblings from students wanting to participate in the walkout pretty much since the Parkland, Fla. shooting, said Dover Area School Superintendent Tracy Krum. 

The district has been receiving emails from parents about how they were going to handle it, she said. On Monday, she and her team got together and formulated the plan that was emailed out the next night.

"It's awesome when students want to have a voice about something they're passionate about," Krum said in an interview. "That's great. We want to encourage that."

That sentiment has been echoed on a state level. 

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators along with other groups such as the Pennsylvania Education Association said in a statement that students should participate within the structure and rules of their own schools.

"Unlike any time in the past, students are taking a strong stand in the important debate surrounding school violence," the statement reads in part, later adding that the group commends the students on their activism.

"However, we need to do this in a safe, organized, and orderly way," the organizations said in their joint statement.

More than 185,000 students are expected to participate in the walkout, according to the latest numbers provided by a Women's March spokesperson, a Fox News article said.

Other recent media reports have addressed the conduct issue, in part.

A long list of colleges and universities have said they would not reject high school students who protest the Parkland, Fla., shooting, according to Reuters.

For Krum, it came down to balancing student activism with student safety.

Krum also pointed to recent threats that have shuttered and affected local districts in recent weeks. At Central York, schools were closed for days following social media threats of violence. 

A middle school girl has since been charged. Dover schools also dealt with its own threats.

"The idea of a hundred kids walking out into the wide open is a little unnerving to us," she said, noting that the event brings students out all at the same, known time.

Similar conversations have recently played out at York Suburban.

On Wednesday morning, acting Superintendent Larry Redding said he met with his  administrative team to talk about the walkout. 

Some middle and high school students asked their administrators how they could participate.

The school now is working on a letter similar to Dover's, explaining how it will handle the day. He said he hoped to send that out before before Friday.

He said the school is trying to balance students' First Amendment rights while ensuring kids don't get in trouble for violating school conduct by missing class.

The school is leaning toward similar measures taken by Dover, letting students walk out of class and go to the gym or another location within the school.

"It starts with the conduct because students walking out of class on any given day is not appropriate behavior," he said. "We want them to be going to a place that we can manage the safety. The conversation of kids just walking out of the building ... is really putting them in an unsafe position."

School officials also said they are trying to respect students who want to walk out of class and those who might not want to take part.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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