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Mecklenburg students, schools get walkout guidance

SoVaNow.com / March 07, 2018


Students, teachers and administrators across the U.S. are being asked to participate in a 17-minute school walkout on March 14 starting at 10 a.m. The date marks the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The length of the walkout is in recognition of the 17 students, teachers and school staff who killed during one of the nation’s deadliest school massacres.

Billed as #Enough National School Walkout, the event is being organized by Women’s March Youth in protest to what they say is “Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.”

In Mecklenburg County, students have been given permission to take part in the protest. “We will support a learning experience of this type for students to express their support for the victims of the school shooting tragedies,” said Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols.

The school division has put a plan in place should students in Mecklenburg County choose to participate in this peaceful assembly. Adults are not to take the lead in this event, it must be student-initiated, Nichols said, and it must be an orderly expression of support, not an excuse to avoid attending class.

Late last week, acting Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven Constantino issued guidelines encouraging each school division “to plan ahead for this event, and for a similar walkout planned by another organization for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School.”

The guidelines are consistent with recommendations developed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals to help officials overcome the conflict they face, between supporting student voices and fulfilling their custodial duties when “free expression evolves into an organized protest or walkout during school hours.” The recommendations are an amalgam of policies developed in the past few years by schools that faced prior walkouts.

In accordance with these polices, Constantino suggested school officials should begin an early dialogue with student leaders organizing the walkout, sharing with them relevant school polices and potential consequences for violating the rules. He also encouraged schools to designate an on-campus location where participants may gather for the 17-minute event. This will minimize disruption to instruction and better enable law enforcement and school resource officers to protect students, he said.

Students need to be told, in advance, that law enforcement officials might be at the event for safety reasons, not to quell any expression of First Amendment rights — both for those supporting as well as opposing the stated objectives of the walkout. As this is a “teachable moment” students should be prepared to hear and advised to be considerate of those who wish to express opposite viewpoints or choose not to participate.

School is about teaching, and learning is a priority for all students, Constantino said, adding that student activism is a part of the learning process. He described the walkout as a way for students to take what they are learning in school and making it real. “When kids are passionate about an issue, it is an opportunity for educators to help students see the connection between curriculum and real life. “

Notifying parents before the walkout is critical, said Constantino. It is equally important to provide written guidance for principals, administrators and faculty, he said, to ensure consistency in the application of division policies for students who choose to participate in the protest.

Since the planned walkout could impact SOL testing, schools have been advised to remain flexible, and if need be contact the Department of Education about rescheduling the tests.

As of Friday, Nichols said he had not heard of any students or student groups planning to participate in the walkout. But if it happens, he was confident the division was ready to engage the student participants in a way that is respectful and educational.

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