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Students Are Walking Out to Protest Gun Violence. What Should School Administrators Do?

In the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead, students are planning mass walkouts to protest gun violence and call for more gun-safety measures.

But across the country, the responses from school and district administrators have varied.

A 17-minute nationwide walkout is planned for March 14, and another protest is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine, Colo., school shooting, which left 13 dead.

In the Needville Independent School district in Texas, the superintendent has said that the district will not allow students to protest during school hours and warned students that they will face a three-day suspension if they chose to do so.

While there were no threats of suspensions, Peoria, Ill., Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat wrote on the district's website that teachers and students in Peoria, will not be participating in the upcoming walkouts and protests against gun violence.  There were other ways to show support for the victims of gun violence without disrupting school, she said.

"We remain concerned about our children's mental and physical safety," she wrote. "Elementary-aged children are not equipped to fully process and understand such events and participation could possibly lead to an increased sense of fear and helplessness. Likewise, it would be impossible to supervise and adequately protect our students from potential harm. Our schools must remain safe and focused on learning."

But the superintendent in the nearly 8,200-student East Penn district, in Emmaus, Pa., took a different approach.

"We will neither encourage nor discourage student walkouts, nor will we prevent students from participating or discipline them if they do," Superintendent Michael Schilder wrote on the district's website. "Administration will facilitate any walkouts so that they are carried out in an organized and safe fashion. "

Administrators, Schilder said, will also meet with students to listen to their concerns and "offer additional ways to express their views such as letter writing and fundraising," he said.

"We want any type of protest to be a positive learning experience for students," he said.  "Above all, we want their voices to be heard."

Given the variety of responses from school administrators, several universities have said publicly that students' admissions will not be affected if they are disciplined for peacefully protesting gun violence.

What should principals and superintendents do?

Two organizations representing principals and superintendents offered some guidance.

For one, teachers and principals should not endorse or participate in walkouts, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"Specifically in the case of a walkout, school officials' participation sets a harmful precedent for endorsing a flagrant violation of school or district policy," the group wrote in a blog on its website. "Moreover, students with differing views might feel alienated or compelled to participate against their will if school officials are perceived as supporting the protest. Teachers can, however, reduce the negative academic effects of the protest by, for instance, not assigning tests or work that cannot be made up if an absence is unexcused. More appropriately, teachers can provide opportunities for remaining students to have their voices heard as well by writing a letter to a legislator, leading a structured conversation about the topic of protest, and so forth."

Administrators' number one priority during any such protests or walkouts was to keep students safe—away from busy streets, for example, the group said. 

The group advised principals to try to keep students on campus grounds, if possible, and discuss with students alternatives—including options that may be less disruptive and safer—to achieve their goals, the NASSP said.

But educators should also remind students that their protests and walkouts are acts of civil disobedience and that they could face consequences as a result, the group noted.

The AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says it supports the April 20 Day of Action to Stop Gun Violence in Our Schools, but stressed that it is not affiliated with any of the planned protests and walkouts.

Instead, the AASA urged "acts of advocacy and civic engagement," where educators can engage in a host of activities. They can wear orange as a sign of support for peaceful schools; organize a sit-in or a teach-in before, during, or after school; and encourage students to write policy letters to organizations they support. Educators can also invite local elected officials to campus for discussions on mental health and bullying and create lessons plans on social justice that explore gun violence, how communities of color and those in poverty are affected by gun violence, and the history of student-led movements, the organization said. 

You can find both sets of advice here:

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