School districts across Idaho face a question March 14: How do they respond to students who want to protest en masse, especially when that protest is about fellow teenagers being killed in school shootings?
Educators and administrators are walking a fine line between observing the students’ right to free speech and encouraging their planned walkout. Meanwhile, student organizers in the Treasure Valley are working on ways for their peers to participate, including those who can’t or won’t skip half a morning of classes to call for federal gun legislation to make schools safer.
In a March 2 letter, the State Department of Education offered extensive guidance for school districts on how to handle the protest.
“The State Department of Education believes that the best place for a student during the school day is in the classroom with their teacher, but we recognize students’ rights to peaceful assembly and free expression,” wrote Matt McCarter, the department’s director of student engagement, in the letter first reported by Idaho Education News.
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The walkout, part of a national campaign sponsored by the people who organized the Women’s March in 2017, is one of three protests in the wake of the mass shooting Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. Students also are organizing a local march to coincide with a national March 24 event the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students set. Another nationwide walkout is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting that left 13 students dead at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Colette Raptosh, a 17-year-old Capital High senior, is an organizer for People for Unity and helped plan the Women’s March in Boise. She said students from all of the Boise high schools and schools in Eagle, Meridian and Nampa have committed to participating in the walkout in some form. The day’s major Enough is Enough event starts at 10 a.m. at the Idaho Capitol.
“We feel that the school shootings across the nation, such as the Florida school shooting, are proof that there must be real action taken by students, parents, teachers, but most importantly, our Congress,” Raptosh said in a press release.
The Boise School District issued a statement saying that it recognizes students’ right to demonstrate, but that district officials can dictate the time, place and manner of a demonstration. It also pointed to its attendance policy, which says a student must have a parent’s permission if they will be absent.
The district asked parents to provide that permission before the walkout. Nampa and West Ada districts have made a similar request. Boise was scheduled to send out a notice to parents Wednesday.
“We just want advance notice,” said Dan Hollar, a district spokesman.
The Boise Education Association has told its teachers not to participate in the walkout or encourage it. Those actions would violate the code of ethics and potentially teachers’ contracts if the school district did not approve, according to Paul Stark, Idaho Education Association general counsel, as quoted in a letter from BEA president Stephanie Myers.
Myers suggested teachers find other ways for their classrooms to “honor these 17 minutes,” including writing to lawmakers or the Parkland students.
“While we are glad to see so many young people taking on the responsibility of participating in the democratic process and sharing their collective voice, we think there are better ways to accomplish these goals that are not potentially disruptive to the academic environment,” said Dave Harbison, spokesman for the Idaho Education Association.
Raptosh is also offering students alternatives to attending the Capitol rally, including wearing orange or leaving class for only 17 minutes.
Will Tanguy, a 17-year-old senior from Boise High School, is coordinating a statewide video project with participants from Pocatello and other schools around the state.
“This is great for people too far away from the Capitol, so they can get their opinions heard,” Raptosh said.
The education department’s McCarter urged schools to include students in security arrangements and to encourage them to be respectful of students who might not share their views. Overall, he told the districts to look at the positive side.
“School is about teaching, learning and developing the future leaders of our community, state and nation,” McCarter said in his memo. “Assess ways you can turn this into teachable moments for everyone.”