Area schools take own approaches to Wednesday walkouts

  • Therese Gachnauer, center, a 18 year old senior from Chiles High School and Kwane Gatlin, right, a 19 year old senior from Lincoln High School, both in Tallahassee, join fellow students protesting gun violence on the steps of the old Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Students at schools across Broward and Miami-Dade counties in South Florida planned short walkouts Wednesday, the one week anniversary of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Students across the region have been preparing for weeks for nationwide demonstrations — including mass walkouts on Wednesday — around the issue of school shootings and gun violence.

Those walkouts have in turn sent local school officials scrambling to react. Many are facing what they say are tough choices on how to balance support of free speech with political neutrality, and whether they should contain demonstrations or take a more hands-off approach.

“This is a unique event in my experience,” said Northampton Superintendent John Provost of the coordinated nationwide walkouts and the conversation surrounding them. “This is certainly the first in my career.”

Provost isn’t alone. In a letter to the Gazette, 20 superintendents from Hampshire and Franklin counties have co-signed a letter with the Collaborative for Educational Services addressing school shootings and the coordinated national school walkouts that organizers of the Women’s March have called for on Wednesday.

Those demonstrations, they write, pose “unique challenges and opportunities for us.”

“Each district is approaching this differently, and is doing so with consideration and respect for the developmental levels of our students in all of our schools,” the letter reads, hinting at the range of responses superintendents have to the walkouts.

Indeed, districts across the country have had disparate responses to the walkouts, which in most cases will consist of 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 victims of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Teachable moment

Some officials, such as one superintendent in Texas, have threatened suspensions for protesting students, while others have taken the advice of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the School Superintendents Association, which have urged educators to turn the walkouts into a teachable moment.

In the Pioneer Valley, school superintendents seem to have taken the latter approach, preferring attempts to structure the walkouts instead of banning them.

Provost said that in Northampton’s schools, students will not be disciplined for participating in Wednesday’s walkout, so long as they return directly to school after the planned 45-minute protest that students have organized themselves. Anyone straying beyond those predetermined parameters, however, will face punishment.

“It would be treated as a class skip, and subject to the discipline for skipping class,” Provost said.

“I have also directed teachers to avoid doing anything that could give the impression of enlisting students in this activity and to continue teaching those students who refrain from participating in the walkout,” Provost wrote in a letter to caregivers of students in the district.

In Belchertown, the district is pushing students to participate in alternative activities instead of a walkout, including writing letters to legislators, Superintendent Karol Coffin said. Some students are planning an “in-school walkout” in the school’s gym, where there will also be voter registration information.

“We’re hopeful that our students will choose some of these alternatives,” Coffin said, though she did concede that some students will want to participate in the walkout anyway. If those students stay within the boundaries of 17 minutes of silence for the Parkland victims, as nationwide organizers have called for, then they will not face punishment, she said.

“They’ll walk out and come back and we’ll continue with business as usual,” Coffin said.

No coercion

In the Hampshire Regional district, Superintendent Craig Jurgensen said school officials are all in support of increased conversations about school safety and violence prevention.

“It’s the logistics that have been really tricky for us,” Jurgensen said of Wednesday’s planned walkout.

While there are students who want to walk out, there are also those with dissenting viewpoints, Jurgensen said. He and school officials wanted to make sure that those who walk out know what they’re walking out for, and that those who don’t walk out feel supported, too.

As in Northampton and elsewhere across the region, Hampshire Regional teachers will continue teaching their lessons during walkouts, so that students don’t in any way feel coerced into participating in a protest.

Students from Hampshire Regional Middle and High School crafted a message to their school community about what would happen on Wednesday. Jurgensen said they worked with the administration, and he was pleased with their letter when he saw it.

“They know what they want to say, they’ve kept the politics out of it and kept their message sincere,” Jurgensen said.

The students and administration have also set boundaries for the walkout: 17 minutes of silence, after which students will walk back to the cafeteria, where they’ll write a reflection.

“As long as students are committed to the purpose of the walkout, walk out on time, stay with the group, return to school as assigned, there are no consequences,” Jurgensen said.

Viewpoints respected

Not all districts are concerned with the walkouts being apolitical, though. In Amherst, for example, student organizers say they’re walking out to protest a dearth of federal regulations on semiautomatic weapons.

“We are not protesting our school,” reads a press release from organizers Leif Maynard and Abigail Morris. “We are expressing our fear and frustration at legislators for not prioritizing our safety while showing our support for the survivors of the Parkland shooting.”

“We know that there are kids who have told us they’re not walking out, and plenty have told us they are,” Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris said. What’s important, he said, is that all of those students feel their viewpoints are respected.

After 17 minutes, some of those students will then continue their protest through downtown Amherst to the town common before heading back to the high school.

Students who walk out in the district will face no repercussions, Morris said. And for those wishing to protest downtown, a note from caregivers will make that an excused absence.

Conversations around how to accommodate all students, protesting and not, are likely to continue. On March 24, national demonstrations are planned, with some local students attending a march on the nation’s capital. And on April 20, to mark the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School, there will be demonstrations.

“I haven’t seen a nationwide movement like this,” Coffin said.

“It’s my hope that we all learn from history so that we don’t repeat it,” she added.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.