Student plans to join peers across the nation in a 17-minute #Enough National School Walkout on Wednesday have school districts in Stanislaus County issuing guidelines, support and warnings.
The walkout, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, calls for students, teachers, school administrators and allies to demonstrate at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes. That’s one minute for each life taken a month earlier, Feb. 14, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by a former student with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
The online event listing shows three in Stanislaus County, at Johansen High in Modesto, Ceres High and Pitman High in Turlock. But other schools in the county anticipate student participation.
Students from Beyer, Enochs and Gregori high schools who spoke with The Bee last month were more focused on the National School Walkout planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. But some said they were considering the planned March For Our Lives on Saturday, March 24, as a “pre-movement” that could include parents, teachers and community members.
The April 20 walkout would be a much longer demonstration: from 10 a.m. to the end of the school day. For that event, students at 11 Stanislaus County schools have registered: Gregori, Davis, Beyer, Downey, Modesto, Enochs, Central Valley, Oakdale, Turlock and Waterford high schools and Roosevelt Junior High.
Modesto City Schools on Thursday shared with The Bee a message Associate Superintendent Marla Mack sent to staff about the walkouts and the March For Our Lives. In part, it told staff, “If students choose to participate in a walkout:
- Do not attempt to prevent students from participating.
- Remind students that there are consequences for leaving class.”
A message sent to families by interim Superintendent Craig Rydquist on Thursday reads, in part, “While we support our students’ rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, we must maintain a safe learning environment, free from disruption and political partiality. It is our expectation that students will adhere to the attendance and behavioral guidelines outlined in our Conduct Code to protect their safety and the safety of others.”
The MCS Conduct Code addresses excused absences including illness, medical appointments, family funerals and other reasons, none of which include public protest. A section on “unexcused absences for personal reasons” indicates students “may be assigned to Saturday School to make up class work missed.”
The Conduct Code assigns consequences for attendance and behavior in a progressing manner based on a student’s history, district spokeswoman Becky Fortuna said Friday. Like any other day, schools will assign consequences on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“We have had many discussions surrounding demonstrations and possibility of teachable moments and believe that we must remain consistent in our response to these types of activities,” Fortuna said. “This isn’t the first or the last time our students will feel passionate about an issue and want to express themselves in this manner. Remaining consistent in our response is important to avoid the appearance of any type of favoritism or partiality to a particular student group or cause.”
The safety of students and staff is the district’s top priority, she said, “but the discussion on how to achieve that safety has turned political.”
Other school districts contacted by The Bee indicated leniency to students taking time out of class for free speech and expression.
Asked Turlock Unified School District’s stance on students who choose to demonstrate for gun control or for gun rights, spokeswoman Marie Russell said, “TUSD is neither encouraging nor discouraging student demonstration participation on either side of this issue. Our focus on March 14 and April 20, as with any other school day, remains on providing a safe and secure environment for our students to learn. No students will be disciplined for demonstrating responsibly while on campus.”
However, she added, “Students who leave campus and/or cause a disruption to the learning environment will be disciplined accordingly.”
Russell, as did other districts’ representatives, said the administration did not have a strong feel for how many students intend to participate in demonstrations..
Pitman High student Frances Haydock said students will gather in the amphitheater, wearing orange, carrying posters and listening to student speakers. “We, the students at Pitman High School, have decided that this moment is too crucial and this issue too urgent to stand idly by,” Frances said in an email. “... We students and our allies are organizing the school walkout to demand Congress pass legislation to protect us. We are not safe at school. We are not safe in our cities and towns. We need action.”
From conversations with other leadership committee students, Frances said as many as 400 students might turn out for the demonstration. She’s seen some talk on social media of a possible counterdemonstration for gun rights, too, she said.
In Ceres Unified, Assistant Superintendent Jay Simmonds said midweek that district administrators had not heard much from students. “One small group has approached one of our high schools about participating,” he said.
Camille Vega, helping organize the walkout at Ceres High, said that based on what she’s heard, she expects about 75 percent of the student body to join in. “We have heard of a few students who do not want to be there, but I don’t think there will be any conflict. I think they will just stay in class.”
The district’s position is the same whether student involvement is great or small, Simmonds said. “We’re not supporting it but we won’t be punitive for the small amount of time it will occur.”
Speaking to the March 14 walkout, he added, “Anything beyond that (17-minute demonstration), there definitely will be discipline. Seventeen minutes, we’re not too concerned about. We don’t like to lose instruction time, but it’s not a major impact..”
The April 20 walkout, for the bulk of the school day, “we will not sanction that, and there would be some type of consequences ... We’re really trying to educate our students to do their political activities during lunchtime.”
Riverbank Unified is working to make the best of the upcoming walkout. He’s not heard from students about the April 20 one, Superintendent Daryl Camp said, but the district is taking a “practical approach” to Wednesday’s event. “Our intent is to make it a teachable moment,” with an emphasis on the power of students’ voices, he said.
Any student who wants to peacefully demonstrate on campus will be allowed to do so, Camp said. To ensure a safe and supportive learning environment, he said, school and district administrators recently met, along with Riverbank Police Services, to discuss strategies to manage student walkouts.
“When we can combine curriculum with an emphasis on political thinking, collaboration and critical thinking,” Camp said, “that’s good.”
Information distributed by the American Civil Liberties Union says schools have the right to punish students for missing class, but not more harshly for protesting than for missing school for another reason. A recent video training for students reminds them that they do not lose their right to free speech by walking onto a school campus, as long as they do not disrupt the functioning of the school.
Students concerned that discipline could impact their chances of being accepted into California universities are being reassured by school officials.
“Peaceful participation in demonstrations will have no impact on applicants for admission to California State University campuses,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy White in a statement released Thursday. “As a university, we encourage the peaceful exchange of diverse viewpoints and we are committed to free speech rights.”
The UC Davis Facebook page featured this post on Feb. 25: “We encourage our community to exercise freedom of expression and engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue. Students who participate in peaceful protests will not jeopardize their admission to UC Davis.”
Diana Lambert of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.