Mount Desert Island High School students demonstrate against gun violence Feb. 15, the day after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla. MDI students are also planning to participate in the National School Walkout at 10 a.m. March 14. FILE PHOTO

Students to protest gun violence



ELLSWORTH — Peaceful protest can make a powerful statement, but it’s not a free pass to walk out of class.

School walkouts are planned nationwide March 14, the one-month anniversary of the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The Enough: National School Walkout is spearheaded by Youth Empower, an offshoot of the Women’s March. The organization on its website calls for students and school staff to leave class for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. March 14 “to demand Congress pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”

The planned walkouts pose a conundrum for educators: How do you maintain order without stifling students’ desire to express themselves? Can students be punished for walking out in protest?

Yes, they can be, but that doesn’t mean they should be, says Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Students’ First Amendment rights don’t stop at the school entrance, but there are limits, Beyea said. According to the group’s website, administrators can “adopt reasonable rules which regulate the ‘time, place and manner’ of exercising your free speech rights.”

“Schools do have the authority to discipline kids if they leave, however, they can’t discipline them more harshly for engaging in protest,” Beyea explained.

She described the recent groundswell of youth activism as “courageous” and “inspiring” and said the walkouts present an opportunity for schools to teach about participatory democracy.

George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill has decided to embrace the walkout — with a few caveats. Head of School Tim Seeley said he decided to green-light the event after being approached by four students.

“Part of our mission as a school is to encourage our students to take part in civic life, to get involved, and, in a responsible way, to try to bring about change in areas about which they are passionate,” Seeley wrote in a letter to parents March 1.

“Because this issue specifically involves schools and students’ experience in schools, it is appropriate for it to take place during school,” Seeley added.

The walkout is expected to take no more than 30 minutes, including the time it takes for students to exit and return to the building. School officials will adjust the day’s schedule accordingly. Participation is optional.

Seeley stressed that the event is student-organized and led, but said he would speak during the walkout.

The 17 minute-duration of the demonstrations is in honor of the 17 victims of the Parkland shootings.

A March 14 walkout is also planned at Mount Desert Island High School, where students also held a demonstration against gun violence Feb. 15, the day after the Parkland massacre.

Dan Higgins, superintendent of the Ellsworth School Department, said he was not aware of any formal plans by students to participate in the walkout but that administrators would work with students if they came forward and expressed a desire to do so.

“Our intent is to work with them and find a way for them to be active participants in the effort in a safe, positive and productive fashion,” Higgins said.

The Ellsworth School Department is scheduled to hold a public forum on school safety at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, March 12.

Bucksport High School officials say they want to find other ways to explore the issues of school safety and gun violence with students.

“We will not be supporting a ‘walkout’ and a disruption to the educational process,” Regional School Unit 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby said.

BHS Principal Josh Tripp said Monday that he met with the school’s leadership team and the group is considering alternative plans for March 14.

“We are looking for activities such as students writing statements to be read to the school, areas in the school where there can be facilitated discussion, etc.,” Tripp said.

Michael Eastman, superintendent of RSU 24, which includes Sumner Memorial High School, said students who wish to observe 17 minutes of silence on March 14 may do so in the cafeteria. The observation will take place during a non-academic period called “Tiger Time.” Afterward, “we will provide time for students to process the event or any other feelings within their Tiger Time groups,” Eastman said.

Deer Isle-Stonington High School will allow “an organized, respectful, student-led effort” if it happens, according to School Union 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington.

The school will require any demonstration to remain indoors as a safety precaution. Students will not be punished, but will need to make up any missed work.

At least one Maine school is warning students that they may face disciplinary action if they walk out.

In a Feb. 28 letter to parents, Virginia Rebar, superintendent of SAD 13, which includes Moscow and Bingham, cited safety concerns, potential disruption and the need for the administration to remain politically neutral.

“We have great reservations about exposing students across the nation to an announced presence outside of locked classrooms and locked buildings considering safety concerns,” she wrote in her letter.

Moreover, she wrote, “scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the district. Students and staff do not have a First Amendment right to disrupt or interrupt the school day for political advocacy.”

Students who participate “will be absent without permission, will miss instructional time and will be subject to normal disciplinary procedures.”

Steven Kenney, a father of eight, including a current MDI High School student, said he objects to children being encouraged to “parade outside for photo ops.”

A former reserve police officer, he said having outdoor demonstrations at an announced time is a security risk.

He said schools would do students a greater service by promoting “unity” and organizing roundtable discussions drawing together varied viewpoints.

Beyea, director of the state ACLU, said youth protests have a history of making the public “uncomfortable.”

Protests have taken various forms over the years — from black armbands during the Vietnam War to sit-ins over civil rights.

“We should all be encouraging and supporting young people,” Beyea said.

Reporters Kate Cough, Jack Dodson and Jennifer Osborn contributed to this report.

 

Update: A March 7 school safety forum in Ellsworth was postponed until March 12 due to the weather. The story was updated to reflect the new date.

Cyndi Wood

Cyndi Wood

Managing Editor
Cyndi is managing editor of The Ellsworth American. The Ellsworth native joined the staff of The American in 2007 as a reporter.
Cyndi Wood

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