Students Find Their Voice—Online and Off—During National Walkouts

Student Voice

Students Find Their Voice—Online and Off—During National Walkouts

By Stephen Noonoo     Mar 13, 2018

Students Find Their Voice—Online and Off—During National Walkouts

A few minutes before 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jasmine Colak will be walking out of her classroom and onto her school’s football field alongside her fellow students for a 17-minute protest.

For the past several weeks, Colak, a senior and the current student representative to her school board, has worked tirelessly with her peers and school administrators at San Pasqual High School near San Diego to organize a solemn yet proactive event commemorating the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 14 students and three adults.

The protest at San Pasqual is part of a wider, student-led walkout movement taking place across the country, called the #ENOUGH National School Walkout. Each walkout will begin at 10 a.m. local time and last 17 minutes—one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“Really, one of our goals was to retain the original meaning behind the walkout and retain student voice,” Colak says, “but also where we were supporting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, showing our support and showing that we care.”

Unlike other walkouts, which might take students off campus, the protest at San Pasqual has been meticulously planned. It will feature a speech by the Associated Student Body president, a reading of all 17 victim names, a moment of silence and a performance of John Lennon's “Imagine” by the school choir. There will also be tables where students can write letters to their legislators and share ideas for finding solutions to gun violence.

“A common misunderstanding with the walkout is that you're walking off campus and that is the only option,” Colak says. “Some students have been concerned that it's turning into an assembly and not a protest, but we're really doing as much as we can to retain that protest aspect.” She adds that students who choose not to participate in the event can spend the time in the school gym instead.

Originally, some students were going to walk out, and possibly off campus, regardless of whether the school gave its blessing. A dialogue ensued and the football field event was born. “For our administration, even though one of their main goals was to keep students on campus, they still wanted to let students walk out of their classrooms,” Colak says. “I think we've found a pretty happy medium and the students on our campus really got to take the lead and take charge in planning this.”

A Nationwide Movement

According to #ENOUGH’s online estimate, more than 2,800 schools have signed on for Wednesday’s walkout—and students in many more schools are expected to join them. On April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, another walkout in support of gun control will begin at 10 a.m. local time and last all day. So far nearly 1,700 schools are set to participate.

Compared to other school administrations, San Pasqual’s compromise might be considered permissive. Official school responses from other parts of the country run the gamut. In a letter, Carmen Fariña, chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education, wrote that students participating in the walkout will be considered cutting class. Other districts, such as Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, support the protest, provided students remain on campus.

“Public schools can require students to attend school—that's the law,” says Esha Bhandari, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Nonetheless, they can't treat absences differently because students are leaving for a political walkout.”

Jon Becker is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who teaches education law, including first amendment issues. Many of the students in his class this semester are practicing administrators pursuing their Ed.D. For the most part, he says they’ve been receptive to the walkouts.

“School leaders are in a place where they have to strike a couple of delicate balances,” Becker says. “On one hand, students getting up and walking out during school is a violation of school policy so they have to deal with that. But on the other hand, most educators would say that students getting involved in civic engagement is an important part of what we do in public education, so they want to be supportive of that.”

Becker has heard of several local schools that are creating space for students to go during the walkout, such as a courtyard on school grounds. That option—the same one favored by San Pasqual—turns the protest into a school-sanctioned event changing the legal implications. “This sort of on-campus, off-campus distinction is important,” he says.

Students Find Their Voice

As with many grassroots protest movements, social media is playing a significant role in helping students organize. Colak has used it to share resources and spread the word. At Sutton High School in Massachusetts, students have vowed to participate in the walkout via a Twitter page over the objections of school officials, who will serve participating students with a detention.

When it comes to the permissibility of student expression on social media, the jury’s out on how much influence schools can exert. Some courts have ruled that schools can discipline students for their social media activity when their comments are considered “disruptive,” Bhandari says. It’s still a bit of a gray area, however, and Bhandari adds that the ACLU “has pushed back against attempts to import school discipline and authority over what students say on their own time on the internet.”

To Becker, part of balancing the equation is taking into account the unique learning opportunity that schools have to engage their students in meaningful dialogue. “If students are really concerned about gun violence in schools, what better way to address that than having school leaders actually talk with students about their concerns and coming up with policy solutions?”

For Colak, though, the movement is a way to give students both a voice and a platform for expressing their ideas to parents, school officials and elected representatives who might not otherwise take them seriously.

“It's time for us as students to do something about the gun violence issue,” Colak says. “We have things to say. We want the adults to really listen to what we're saying when they make decisions that affect us.”

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