Durham County

A school walkout might get you suspended, but it won’t keep you from getting in these universities

High-school students can join peaceful protests without having to worry about it affecting their chances of getting into Duke, N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University.

The four universities joined a lengthening list of universities that are issuing reassurances after a few school districts in Texas and Wisconsin threatened to suspend students who participate in walkouts to protest the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“Duke has always valued active and responsible engagement in civic life among its students and applicants,” said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions. “We will always consider all applicants fully and individually, and every part of the application, including disciplinary sanctions, in the unique context of the applicants themselves and the values of the institution we represent, which include civic and personal responsibility.”

“An applicant’s participation in peaceful protests has never been a reason for us to deny or rescind an offer of admission,” he added.

Over the weekend, Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch tweeted: “Prospective @WakeForest students protesting for change: we applaud your courage and would be proud to call you Demon Deacons.”

The NCSU Office of Undergraduate Admissions posted a similar message reassuring applicants on its website Monday: “Peaceful protests by high school students who seek to find solutions to the tragedy of school shootings will not have an impact on their admission decision. NC State students, faculty and staff work every day to solve problems in a respectful environment. We merge creative ideas with purposeful action. We value, stand by and encourage students who try to make a positive impact on the world and solve problems.”

Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admission at UNC, issued a statement late Monday saying the university “welcomes peaceful, principled, and purposeful action to improve the lives of others and society as a whole.”

The university won’t rush to judgment on applications, he said, adding, “Although this practice requires that we consider each suspension individually, participation in non-violent civil protest and peaceful expression does not harm a candidate’s chances with UNC-Chapel Hill.”

NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said applicants and admitted students are asked to honestly disclose school discipline, but the university’s primary interest is in keeping the campus safe. “Universities are increasingly making it known that we don’t make judgment over disciplinary actions your school takes on you unless it’s for violent reasons,” Woodson said.

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The Parkland shootings, which killed 14 students and three staff members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, have renewed the national debate about gun-possession rights and controls.

There have been walkouts and other protests at schools around the country. There were at least two walkouts in Durham last week. In Orange County, students at Carrboro High School have announced a walkout March 14, one of many planned across the country a month after the Parkland shootings.

The twist that has college admissions officers talking this time came when the superintendent of a Houston-area school district threatened to impose three-day suspensions on any student joining a demonstration during school hours at one of the district’s campuses. He vowed to carry that out “no matter if it is one, 50 or 500 students involved.”

Similar if less-dramatic threats followed from several other school districts.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina called on school administrators to respect students’ First Amendment rights. It offered legal help to North Carolina students who are punished for protesting.

“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,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “Officials should remember that even when they are within their rights to discipline students, it doesn’t mean that they should.”

Following the Houston superintendent’s comments, universities, mostly private ones, began to reach out to alleviate any potential chilling effect among potential applicants. The list continued to grow over the weekend, when Duke first joined via a statement from Guttentag that said he and his staff “will always consider all applicants fully and individually, and every part of the application in the context of the applicants themselves and the values of the institution we represent.”

The amended version issued Monday added mention of disciplinary sanctions specifically as something Duke weighs not just against the rest of an applicant’s record but against “the values of the institution we represent.” It further added the sentence that says participation in peaceful protests has never been a reason to deny or rescind admission offers.

Duke’s chief spokesman, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, said Duke in issuing the statement is “not endorsing any particular position” on the controversies of the day, but is standing for “civic engagement and personal responsibility.”

Hatch, of Wake Forest, applauded high school students’ efforts, saying, “We believe in your passion, your resolve, and your willingness to engage in thoughtful conversation.” Writing on the university’s website, he added: “It is time for courage and time for compromise. And it is time for real conversation in which every idea and every person is taken seriously. We stand with you as you seek the truth and endeavor to make this a more perfect union.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg