March 14 National School Walkout: Know Your Rights as a Student Activist
Tomorrow marks the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The students of Parkland are giving the world a lesson in activism and showing the power of making a statement in the face of longstanding legislative inaction.
Student walkouts to protest gun violence in schools have been happening across the country, making national headlines and engendering disciplinary threats from some school administrators. Tomorrow morning (March 14) at 10 a.m. across all time zones, students from at least 2,200 schools nationwide are expected to participate in the National School Walkout. The walkout will last seventeen minutes in commemoration of the seventeen victims of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas. Among other calls, participants are demanding that Congress ban assault weapons, require universal background checks before gun sales, and pass a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm those flagged for warning signs of violent behavior.
Some school districts have already threatened to suspend students who walk out, however 117 colleges and universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are publicly supporting students by pledging that protest-related suspensions will not affect prospective students’ admissions.
Know your rights as a student activist! The ACLU provides a printable fact sheet with helpful information to review if you’re thinking of participating.
The law does require students to attend school. Therefore, a school can discipline students for missing class, even if they’re doing so to participate in a protest or otherwise express themselves politically. However, a school cannot discipline students more harshly for walking out to express a specific political view or because school administrators oppose the students’ views. In other words, any disciplinary action for walking out cannot be a response to the content of the protest. Punishments for missing class vary with individual schools. Students are entitled to make up work missed during absences. Take a look at your school’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Manual. Be aware of your school’s policies for class absences so that you can determine if you are being treated unfairly.
If you’re planning to miss a class or two, look at the policy for unexcused absences. If you plan on missing several days, read about the truancy policies in your district and state. Be sure to read the policy for suspensions. In some states and districts, suspension is not an available punishment for unexcused absences. If you’re facing a suspension of ten days or more, you have the right to a formal process, including legal representation. In some cases, states and school districts require a formal process for shorter suspension periods too.
It’s important that school administrators, parents, and students understand the rights guaranteed to all Americans—including students—under the First Amendment.
Here are some things to know about students’ rights to protest in public schools as outlined by the ACLU of Indiana’s Executive Director, Jane Henegar:
Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. Students have the right to speak out, distribute flyers and petitions, and wear clothing that expresses a viewpoint—as long as they don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate school policies.
Students are allowed to speak freely on social media. Students’ right to free speech extends to social media content that is unrelated to school and posted off-campus outside of school hours.
School administrators: Just because schools are within their rights to discipline students, that doesn’t mean they should. We commend the school leaders who are working to ensure that students can participate in these protests and make their voices heard without risking punishment, even if walk-out participants may be in technical violation of school rules. To cultivate informed citizens who care about their communities and speak truth to power, school leaders should take this opportunity to encourage this spirit of activism and civic purpose, not punish it.
Students at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia, organized their second protest in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Sophia Liao, Zachary Schonfeld, and Dora Ahearn-Wood are among students demanding that legislators go beyond tweeting thoughts and prayers and instead pass legislation to thwart gun violence.
“We should feel safe in our schools and not have to worry if we are next,” Liao told a local news website. “Just last Friday, we got lucky. The lockdown was quickly found to be a false alarm through the diligent work of school administration and police. But we should not have to live in a place where we have to see our friends texting and calling their families, terrified for their lives. This is not normal, and it needs to change.”