Schools around the country staged so-called walkouts this week in the wake of public concerns raised over the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Florida that took the lives of 17 students and faculty. In Lapeer County, Michigan, students at the Lapeer High School were among the thousands of students in the U.S. who participated in the demonstrations on Wednesday. Some of walkouts were marked by prayer for the victims, while others called on legislators to address gun laws. According to a report by the Flint Journal, the Michigan newspaper indicated that students at the Lapeer High School were urged to make their voices heard, according to school Superintendent Matt Wandrie, but without disrupting their learning experience. 

Wandrie said, according to the paper, "We're a public school. Our job is to help facilitate public discourse and help kids learn how to do this type of civic engagement in an appropriate and peaceful way." Wandrie added that it is “ludicrous” to think that students are not impacted by the gun violence, saying, “They are scared. We as adults are scared." When Spero News called Wandrie for comment on Friday, the person who answered said that he was travelling.

Ben DeGrow, who follows education-related issues for the Mackinac Center -- a thinktank based in Michigan, responded to Wandrie’s assertions in an email to Spero News. “Informed student activism can be a great thing, as young people can take in different sides of an issue, and learn about the world and how to find their voice and place in it. But as Robert Pondiscio, one of the smartest civics teachers I know, put it: ‘If students have permission to walk out, it’s no longer student activism at all. It’s a field trip.’ And if a school decides that’s a good way to promote learning and fulfill its mission, those boundaries likely are going to be tested.”

Pointing out the risks educators take in sponsoring events such as the walkouts, DeGrow added, “What happens the next time a group of students organize a walkout in support of a different cause – maybe a politically conservative, or faith-based cause? Will school leadership enforce a consistent policy, or pick and choose based on the agenda? Either way, the precedent of a sanctioned, consequence-free walkout creates many kinds of complications that could frustrate parents, teachers and other staff members. In the end, this kind of disagreement strengthens the case to give more families true educational choice.”

A message left for a staff member of the office of Michigan’s state Superintendent of Education Brian Whiston, asking for comment, was not returned.

In Chicago, the Republican Party announced that it will sue the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) over the student walkout in the Windy City on Wednesday. over its decision to organize students to participate in Wednesday’s student walkouts that promoted gun control. According to a statement from Chicago’s GOP chairman, Chris Cleveland, “It’s appalling that 10 to 14-year-old kids would be coerced, by their teachers, to participate in a political demonstration.”

Cleveland added, “A 10-year-old kid isn’t going to have an informed opinion on these political matters, and shouldn’t be expected to have the fortitude to hold a different opinion from everyone else in his or her classroom. This is political indoctrination, pure and simple.” The press release went on to say, “It’s a violation of CPS policy, of state law, and of the First Amendment for a government-run school to organize a political demonstration and pressure students to participate in it.” The press released cited an email sent by school officials to parents of children attending Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago. The email stated: 

“This coming Wednesday, March 14 many students/schools across the nation (and globe) are going to participate in a school walkout demonstration at 10:00 AM to support the memory of those that were killed in the Parkland, FL shooting and also to demonstrate their right to express their opinion about gun control. At Lincoln, we will also participate in a walkout.”

At other Chicago schools, students were explicitly encouraged to hold banners and signs calling on lawmakers to pass “stricter gun laws.”

The email to parents at Lincoln Elementary School went on to describe the event as providing one minute of silence for each of the 17 victims of the Florida shooting to be held in front of the school at Kemper Place in Chicago. The walkout was scheduled to end at 3:45 p.m. on Wednesday. According to the message, students wishing to air their opinions about gun control had the “right” to do so. While school personnel were not “making judgement calls,” read the email, students were asked to model “peace, respect and decorum.” Any students who did not wish to participate were told to report to the principal’s office to be directed to a location at the school where they were to wait until being released at 3:45 p.m.

The email provided resources for parents to peruse in order to explore political activism. However, according to Chicago Public School rules, political activity by school employees while at work. “Employees are permitted to engage in Political Activity on a voluntary basis during non- work hours, vacation, or personal time. Employees are not permitted to engage in Political Activity during any other Board compensated time.” CPS rules also state, “At no time shall any Official or Employee intentionally misappropriate the services of any Employee by requiring that any Employee perform any Political Activity as: Part of that Employee’s duties…”

In Rocklin, California, a high school teacher was put on paid administrative leave because of her views about the national school walk out. History teacher Julianne Benzel claims that what she did was to encourage students to think about the politics of protest. Thousands of students around the country participated in walkouts. In some cases, such as in Chicago, students were encouraged by their schools to contact their legislators to write new gun laws. Benzel received notification of the leave on Tuesday. 

According to CBS, Benzel said she urged her students to consider whether school administrators would have allowed them a walkout over the issue of abortion. 

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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