School districts balance student engagement with enforcing rules ahead of planned walkouts
Students across the St. Louis region are planning school walkouts this week as part of a national call for improved school safety and tighter gun-control measures.
Students at more than a dozen schools in the area are planning events Wednesday morning in response to the mass school shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. That’s left school officials to figure out the best way to respond: should they support student involvement and civic engagement, or should they enforce school rules?
The Hazelwood School District in north St. Louis County is warning its students that if they participate in an unsanctioned protest on Wednesday they’ll face possible disciplinary actions. In a letter, Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said students should work with their teachers to plan activities in “appropriate ways to have students’ voices heard.”
“An unauthorized walkout of any kind is unacceptable and will be responded to based on the Student-Parent Handbook and Behavior Guide,” Collins-Hart added.
The Maplewood Richmond Heights School District is working with students and teachers to develop some in-class activities and discussions. For instance, the district said high school and middle school students will have the option to participate in a rally promoting school safety.
While Superintendent Karen Hall said in a letter to parents that a walkout including the entire student body would be unsafe, she added that students have the right to be heard.
“No (Maplewood Richmond Heights) student who exercises the constitutional right to peacefully participate in this type of speech will be reprimanded or made to fear retribution,” Hall said.
For school officials, it can be a bit of a tightrope between allowing their students to express opinions without creating a chaotic atmosphere.
“We want to give kids voice, there’s no doubt about it,” said Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost, whose district is on spring recess next week.
“That’s their right, and it’s a good teachable moment as well,” he added. “But it’s very difficult for us to say we support walkouts, because you have a walkout about this today, and a walkout about that tomorrow and something else in a week. We have an obligation to have school.”
Lauren Malloy, a senior at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, is co-organizing the walkout at her school.
“We’re saying now is the time for change, but it was time for change a long time ago,” she said. “It was time for change after Columbine, it was time for change after Sandy Hook, it was time for change after Aurora. But they really need to do something now, and we’re going to make them do it.”
Universities in the area have openly encouraged the movement, announcing any discipline students receive will not impact their chance at admission.
“Dissent, dialogue and debate are critical to the academy and should be seen as central to — and not divergent from — learning,” Saint Louis University President Fred Pestello wrote in a letter.
Washington University told applicants in a tweet “march on.” Webster University will also overlook discipline stemming from peaceful protests, a spokesman said.
Wednesday’s walkouts begin a series of national events over school safety. A march is planned in downtown St. Louis on March 24, and then another coordinated walkout is scheduled for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.
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