Most school districts throughout the Triangle say they will not punish students who participate in walkouts Wednesday.
Students at several local schools plan to take part in a National School Walkout to call for an end to school gun violence. The Women's March Youth EMPOWER is encouraging students across the country to walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday for 17 minutes — one minute for each of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14.
Schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district say they won't punish students as long as protests are orderly.
In Wake County, the largest school district in North Carolina, school officials say they’re trying to make sure protests are peaceful while also respecting the free-speech rights of the students.
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“Participation in a peaceful protest wouldn’t qualify for disciplinary action,” Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman, said last month.
Jeff Nash, a spokesman with the Chapel HIll-Carrboro school system, said the district's conversations with principals have been about how to keep everyone safe during the walkouts. He said students won't be punished as long as the events are orderly and they return to their classes when the walkouts are over.
"If there’s any place that appreciates student voice, it’s Chapel Hill," Nash said.
Nash said schools are also talking about school violence. East Chapel Hill High School will have "restorative circle" discussions Wednesday morning before the walkout so students can discuss in class the shootings in Parkland, Fla.
Orange County schools won't "punish or suspend students so long as the walkout is orderly," said spokesman Seth Stephens. "As a district we recognize the reality of the conversations that our students and parents and community are having."
In Johnston County, the schools are encouraging alternatives to student walkouts.
"We know that students don't leave their constitutional rights at the school door, but as a learning institution, it is our obligation and duty to teach our young people how to approach problems with intention and a goal of resolution," Superintendent Ross Renfrow said in a news release. “That starts with communication, engagement and productive interaction.”
In Johnston this week, that interaction includes a Week of Unity at South Johnston High School, with each day offering an activity for students to take part in. The school system said the objective of each activity is to give students a voice during tumultuous times.
Next week, West Johnston High School will observe Kindness Week, with students and teachers sending cards, banners and messages of love and support to students and staff at Stoneman Douglas High School.
Some districts around the nation have threatened to suspend students who participate in school protests. Leaders of the Needville Independent School District near Houston, Texas, made national headlines for threatening to suspend students for three days if they engaged in any student demonstrations during school hours.
“Respect yourself, your fellow students and the Needville Independent School District and please understand that we are here for an education and not a political protest,” said Curtis Rhodes, superintendent of Needville, in a Facebook post that has since been taken down.
Concerns about suspensions have led the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the national ACLU to urge students who are harshly disciplined for engaging in political walkouts to contact them for help.
“While school officials may discipline students for missing class, they can’t punish students more harshly because they are walking out to express their political views, or because officials don’t agree with their message,” Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. “Officials should remember that even when they are within their rights to discipline students, it doesn’t mean they should.”
Colleges and universities around the country, including Duke, N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University, have said high school students can join peaceful protests without having to worry about it affecting their admissions chances.
Wake school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler and interim Superintendent Del Burns released a statement Tuesday saying they recognize that students “want a voice in this public conversation” about school safety and that “teachable moments of this magnitude do not happen frequently.” Both school leaders say students should have conversations with their principals and with their parents.
“We realize these conversations can be awkward,” Johnson-Hostler and Burns wrote. “Please don’t let that stop you. We are not talking about political debates.
“We are talking about the love and caring that drives us all to place such a high priority on the safety of children.”