Stirred by their peers in Florida who last week survived one of the nation’s most deadly school shootings, students and some faculty at high schools across the Dayton area walked out of class Wednesday to memorialize the dead and harden their legacy.
The walkouts by several hundred students at Dayton Regional STEM School, Miami Valley School and Tippecanoe High School, among others, come amid a small but growing national movement of high school students following the slaughter of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Fla.
The local walkouts were largely apolitical, focusing on school safety and remembering the dead as opposed to advocating for stricter gun control or mental health resources.
Tipp City Schools Superintendent Gretta Kumpf characterized the walk out of 200 Tippecanoe students as an action “in support of safer schools.”
“We saw this idea online and were talking to a student at the (Florida) high school,” Huthayfa Usman, 17, a senior at the Dayton Regional STEM School in Kettering. “This is a lot more than politics. This was not meant to be a political thing. This was strictly meant to be in support of the victims.”
But school walkouts planned for coming days will no doubt be political, channeling into activism a mix of fear and frustration amid the specter of being the next addition on America’s list of school shooting victims.
Students at Kettering Fairmont High School are arranging two walkouts in coming weeks, according to students and administrators who are aware of the planning. One, on March 14, will honor the victims in Florida. The other, to be held on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, will focus on pressuring Congress to protect students.
“We’re protesting Congress’ lack of action to protect students in schools,” said Meigan Karolak, a Fairmont sophomore. “I cannot speak for everybody in the movement, but I personally just would like to see the process of owning a gun to be more difficult — more intensive background searches — so that people who are buying these guns … will use these in a way that will not hurt others.”
As the tone and intent of the walkouts shifts from commemorative to political, a question of legal consequence — How do we treat these protests? — now faces school administrators.
The First Amendment gives students the right to engage in political speech, even at school, said Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, in an email. However, LoMonte said the First Amendment does not protect students against disciplinary consequences for the non-speech aspects of student conduct.
“There is no ‘political speech’ exception to the rule against truancy,” said LoMonte. “Many administrators will use discretion not to impose disciplinary consequences when students are engaged in an especially compelling cause, so just because you have the authority doesn’t mean you’re required to use it.”
Punishment for truancy is a concern, but would likely not deter Fairmont students, Karolak said.
“I think when it comes down to it, if we get in trouble, it’s much more important to stand up for something like this than get something like a truancy,” the 15-year-old said.
Fairmont Principal Tyler Alexander said he is working with students and other administrators to plan how the school will handle the walkouts, but cautioned the district has not yet decided on whether students would face consequences.
“Sorry I am unable to answer your question about consequences,” Alexander wrote Karolak in an email. “Right now, I am unsure what those will be, if any. It is imperative we are consistent district wide, thus it will take some time to get everything in place.”
LoMonte said schools could get in legal trouble for imposing disciplinary consequences on student protesters is if the disciplinary authority is used in a selective way.
“So if the school has a written policy that a student can be excused from school by presenting a written parental note, and the student protester does bring in a parental note, the school has to honor that note on the same terms with any other parental excuse,” LoMonte said. “… if the policy says ‘you may have an excused absence only in the event of personal or family medical issues’ then the school is free to discipline students for walking out, even with a parental note.”
Kettering police patrolled the Dayton Regional STEM School walkout Wednesday at the request of school administrators. In an interview, Alexander told the Dayton Daily News he is concerned Fairmont students could become a soft target for violence if they walk out of school at a publicized date and time. “Students are most safe within our walls, not outside our walls,” he said.
Alexander also expressed concern for students who choose not to participate in a walkout, especially if teachers elect to join.
“If a teacher wants to participate and only 20 out of 25 students in a class want to participate, we can’t leave five students unattended in class,” he said.
Kettering district officials will meet next week to plan ahead of the organized walkouts.