Why Wake County won’t punish students who protest school gun violence

North Carolina’s largest school system says students who work with their principals to participate in peaceful protests over school gun violence will not be punished for exercising their constitutional rights.

The Wake County school system is telling students that protests are acceptable in the wake of the Feb. 14 Florida mass school shooting as long as they talk to their principal to make sure the events are held in a safe manner. School officials say they’re trying to make sure protests are peaceful while also respecting the free-speech rights of the students.

“Participation in a peaceful protest wouldn’t qualify for disciplinary action,” Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman said Tuesday.

In June, the Wake school board changed the Code of Student Conduct, including eliminating wording that says students “can’t engage in any protest, march, picket, sit-in, boycott, walkout” on campus. Luten said students who participate in protests are still subject to the code’s requirements that they don’t engage in unsafe behavior.

Wake’s response sets it apart from some districts that have threatened to suspend students who participate in school protests that are planned around the nation. 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.”

Many protests are expected to take place nationally on March 14, but some have already occurred, including last week at Cary High School.

A student walkout is planned for noon Wednesday at Green Hope High School in Cary. In a video promoting the event, students say they’re walking out to stand in support of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and to call for an end to school gun violence.

“We stand by all those impacted by gun violence in our schools,” Green Hope principal Karen Summers says in the video.

But at least one Green Hope High student raised concerns about the walkout, which organizers say is not about politics.

“I recognize and appreciate the efforts to make this walkout apolitical, although I am concerned that my conservative, 2nd Amendment views will not be respected or even represented during #WhyGHwalks,” Green Hope student Reilley McMaster posted on the school newspaper’s website. “I am passionate about school safety, just like my classmates, but I also feel strongly that guns don’t kill people and it is the people that need help.”

Students at Apex Friendship High School plan a walkout on March 14 that will last 17 minutes – one minute for each person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Whinter Collin and Bailey Ingham, the two 17-year-old seniors organizing the walkout, said principal Matt Wight told them he couldn’t sanction the event, but he wanted to make sure it was peaceful and wouldn’t disrupt the school.

“Mr. Wight is a very bipartisan principal,” Ingham said. “He’s willing to hear what everyone has to say and let them express their political opinions.”

Wight said knowing about the event ahead of time allows him to plan for any potential disruption. Wight said he appreciated how the organizers are taking the event seriously as opposed to using it an opportunity to miss part of a class.

“I can’t encourage them or endorse them to leave class,” Wight said. “But if they do, I advised them about safety: staying away from traffic and being orderly because their safety is my prime concern.”

Both students plan to leave campus early on April 20 to organize an after-school countywide march in downtown Raleigh. Both say they realize they will be marked absent for the classes they miss that day.

Efforts by principals to work with students to make sure walkouts are done safely shouldn’t be interpreted as the district taking a position on gun control, according to Luten, the Wake spokeswoman.

“This is about our legal responsibility to keep the kids safe and respect the students’ rights,” she said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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