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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Walkouts honoring slain students prompt differing responses in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene

Cheney High School students form a circle and take turns offering their thoughts on recent school shootings during a lunch hour walkout and protest on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Thomas Clouse and Chad Sokol The Spokesman-Review

Inspired by the powerful messages from the students who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a Spokane eighth-grader started handing out permission slips to about 200 fellow students at Sacajawea Middle School.

Parent Megan Riggs said her 13-year-old daughter, Abby, already has written a speech for the 17 minutes that students will spend outside of class for a walkout planned on March 14 to honor the 17 students and teachers killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

But that was before Spokane Public Schools sent out robocalls on Monday informing parents in classes from kindergarten through eighth grade that the adults must come to the school in person if their students choose to participate.

“It’s unfathomable to me,” Riggs said. “The fact these kids are standing up and willing to say … that kids need to stop dying, I can’t believe the school district isn’t doing more to get involved and help them.”

In addition to the parent requirement for middle school students, the district also sent notes to parents of high school students informing them that the planned walkouts “are not sanctioned by the district” and that parents need to call the schools in advance to get approval. If not, the students will be marked down as “unexcused” even if the event lasts the 17 minutes as planned.

“It’s giving parents an opportunity to have that conversation at home,” district spokesman Kevin Morrison said on behalf of Superintendent Shelley Redinger. “Everybody everywhere has questions … this allows us to take a breath and come up with what we think is a reasonable, measured response because we are an educational institution and we are entrusted by the community to provide a safe learning environment.”

School officials in Coeur d’Alene, by contrast, won’t mark high school students as truant or face any other consequences as long as they act safely and return to class after the demonstrations, said Scott Maben, spokesman for Coeur d’Alene Public Schools.

“Our position is that students have a constitutional right to take part in a peaceful protest like this,” Maben said, adding that most of the students who plan to demonstrate are in high school. “I think we regard them as old enough and mature enough to exercise their First Amendment rights. When they’re finished, we expect them to return to class.”

Maben said the district would not require students to get their parents’ permission to demonstrate. “No one has raised that question in all of the discussions I’ve had,” he said.

Maben said district administrators, school principals and school resource officers from the Coeur d’Alene Police Department met early Tuesday to formulate a safety plan for the walkouts. He said the district is taking an “all hands on deck” approach, and the city’s police and fire departments have offered to lend additional staff to watch over students who participate. He said the walkouts are expected to be “contained” and remain on campus.

“We want to be communicating with the student leaders and understand what they’re trying to accomplish,” Maben said. “We need to listen to them and take our cues from them, and then put our safety plan in place.”

In both Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, teachers will remain in the classrooms to conduct normal routines for the students who choose not to participate.

“We’ve had a few (parents) reach out who said they are going to allow their students to participate, and that’s fine,” Morrison said. “But, the three parents I’ve talked to have all been supportive of the move” to require parental permission.

One of the parents has a student with special needs and didn’t want him to leave the safety of the building, Morrison said. “I assured her that the teachers have received the same message: Their job is to stay with the students in the classroom.”

Mead Superintendent Tom Rockefeller said he did not know of any planned walkouts, and the Central Valley School District has not sent any messages to parents regarding its position, spokeswoman Marla Nunberg said.

“We support and honor the students’ freedom of speech,” Nunberg said. “But the ins or outs of how we are going to handle that, we don’t have an answer at this time. Obviously, safety is our biggest concern.”

Navigating walkouts

School officials’ responses beg the question: How should they respond when students become activists?

Vanessa Hernandez, a lawyer and the youth policy director for the ACLU of Washington, said school officials face a balancing act.

“Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates. They have a right to engage in First Amendment-protected speech and protests,” Hernandez said. “Schools, though, also have a legitimate interest in ensuring that students are in class and attending school.”

What schools absolutely cannot do, Hernandez said, is apply their absence policies differently for students who choose to protest and students who miss class for any other reason. Washington law also limits schools from suspending students for unexcused absences, she said.

“If a student engages in a walkout, and that is their first unexcused absence, suspension wouldn’t be a legal response to that behavior,” she said.

Hernandez said schools also have some leeway to decide what constitutes a good excuse for an absence. With parents’ permission, she said, schools can excuse absences in “extraordinary circumstances,” and demonstrations such as the planned walkouts might qualify. But schools can go the other way, too, and decide not to excuse an absence even if the student got parental approval, she said.

Hernandez said Spokane Public Schools’ plan to require parental supervision during walkouts raises some “serious concerns” and is “very different” than simply requiring a permission slip.

“Students have First Amendment rights that are independent of their parents,” she said. “In other contexts (such as students who refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance) courts have struck down parental approval or notification requirements as unlawfully chilling First Amendment protections.”

Hernandez said she expects “that all the school districts in Washington are well-acquainted with the laws on this in our state, and recognize the opportunities that come with student protest.

“It’s not just a problem to which administrators should respond,” she said. “When students are civically engaged and exercising their rights, that should be an opportunity for education.”

Abby’s project

Riggs, the parent of the Sacajawea student, said her daughter got started with the help of her social studies teacher who told the students that if they got permission slips that the students could meet on school grounds and give 17 minutes worth of speeches.

“I think it’s amazing that my 13-year-old managed to mobilize 200 students to get involved in this,” Riggs said. “I think its incredible what they are doing.”

Then she got the message on Monday night from the district about how parents must accompany the students who want to attend.

“I’m pretty frustrated by it,” Riggs said. “Abby and her friends have speeches already written. This isn’t just getting out of classes for 17 minutes because they are bored.”

Morrison said the different requirement for younger students was more about logistics. The district must have a parent present to allow a student in middle or elementary school go to the dentist or see a doctor.

“We do have high-school aged students driving themselves and have the responsibility to take themselves out of class,” he said. “But they still need to be excused to do that.”

Riggs said her daughter was forced to barricade herself in Sacajawea last September during the shooting at Freeman High School.

“I feel it’s unfair for the school district to say … ‘You need to build a barricade’ and then at the same time say, ‘You are not ready to handle this kind of thing,’” she said. “These lockdowns were very real for them. For the middle-schoolers, I don’t think we are giving them enough credit for what they are exposed to.”

Redinger, the superintendent, acknowledged that many students want to make a statement, but she doesn’t believe it’s necessary to sanction the walkouts.

“I have huge confidence that they will make the right decisions,” she said of the students. “We think it’s very important that parents are involved in any decision.”

But as a parent, Riggs said wants the district to change course and empower the students to speak out.

“I’m hoping they change their minds and see the other side of this and what these kids are trying to do,” Riggs said, “rather than just from a liability standpoint. Walking out onto their own school grounds for 17 minutes is not a big ask.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 28, 2018, to reflect the ACLU’s opinion on the Spokane Public Schools plan to require parental supervision during student walkouts.