Member Support

Student Walkouts & School Safety

picture of students during the March for Our Lives
 

Introduction

This guide represents the collective work of a number of principals and activity advisers across the nation. It was produced by AWSL/AWSP as a proactive response to the national school safety campaigns initiated by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Its purpose is to help school administrators and activity advisers support students choosing to invoke their right to participate in the democratic process through civic engagement. There is a delicate balancing act of ensuring students the right to peacefully demonstrate if they choose while also meeting a school’s paramount responsibility to maintain a safe and productive learning environment.

This guide is not a definitive answer or legal interpretation. Every school situation is different and the nuances of free speech rights are complex. Decide a course of action by considering school policies, student codes of conduct and local community needs. Going through the proper channels to seek advice from a school district’s legal counsel is a prudent step. Finally, local law enforcement may also be an appropriate resource to utilize.



Definitions

Student Voice:

The participation and empowerment of students as stakeholders in the decision-making process within a school within three general levels:

  • Authority subject to approval: student elections, projects and events, Constitutional revisions, etc.
  • Shared Authority: school climate, scheduling, fundraising, assemblies, etc.
  • Input, not Authority: grades, discipline, credit requirement, curriculum, etc.

Demonstration:

A planned and organized act allowing the expression of free speech while also maintaining a safe environment.

Civil Disobedience:

The refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest with legal consequences, often following the acts of protest for participating individuals.



Case Law on The Free Speech Right of Students: Tinker v. Des Moines

The Supreme Court ruling that guides the free speech rights of students is nearly 50 years old: Tinker v. Des Moines. In this ruling, the action of students wearing black armbands protesting the Vietnam War was deemed protected speech by the First Amendment. On February 24, 1969 the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court ruled the First Amendment applied to public schools, and school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process. The standard: Schools must prove a material and substantial disruption to the learning environment to censor student free speech.



Points to Remember

  • If you have any concerns, use your school protocols and procedures to contact your district’s legal counsel.
  • Do not restrict protected student speech.
  • Schools are allowed to set reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the activity.
  • Schools must remain neutral ‐ not seen as being in support or non-support‐while being prepared for the walkouts, since advance notice (a set time and date) has been given. (For example: A school could offer an indoor place for walkout students to assemble with time for a student leader to speak and an alternate indoor, supervised location with a planned, meaningful activity for non-participating students to gather or a school could provide supervision in the hall or gym where students could gather, while learning continues in the classroom or students could leave the building and could be directed to a designated area on campus.


Current National Campaigns on School Safety

March 14: #ENOUGH National School Walkout

An initiative organized by Empower: The Women’s March Youth Branch encouraging a 17 minute observance on the one month anniversary at 10:00 a.m. for the 17 people who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

March 24: #March4OurLives

A national call to action organized by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to take place in our nation’s capital.

April 20: #ENOUGH National School Walkout

An initiative organized by Empower: The Women’s March Youth Branch. Students are encouraged to wear the color orange on the day, which falls on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado when twelve students and one teacher were killed. A Change.org petition has set a goal of collecting 50,000 signatures on this day as well.



Key Messages and Concepts to Communicate to the Community

  • Frame the issue as student and school safety.
  • Remind parents, if they are on school property during the school day, they are subject to the school’s rules and regulations.
  • “We are working with students, staff and local authorities to ensure students are safe and are able to have their voices heard through organized and meaningful student-led actions.”
  • “We will be respecting the rights of all students. There will be no coercion of any kind‐to participate or not participate‐coming from adults or student peers.
  • “The role of our staff during this time will be to help keep our students safe, not participate in the demonstration or advocate for any political party or policy.”
  • “This can be a learning opportunity that helps our students apply the citizenship lessons that they are learning in school and to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and express dissent”
  • “We encourage our students to be actively engaged citizens who are knowledgeable about multiple viewpoints surrounding current events. We teach them how to participate in our democracy in a variety of ways that might include addressing lawmakers through letters, creative works that help express how they feel about an issue, and discussions. Through these kinds of experiences, our students learn the skills they need to form, support and express their own personal positions on issues.”


Working with School Staff

  • Keep the Superintendent and School Board Members in the loop as student plans unfold and are modified.
  • Solicit input from staff for reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.
  • Remind staff that school districts don’t engage in protests. However, students have a free speech right and may express their political viewpoint, if it doesn’t present a material or substantial disruption to the learning environment.
  • Work with union leadership–remind them this has to be a student-led process. School staff must remain content and viewpoint neutral, while they are working at school. Teachers/staff have other avenues/channels through which to express their political views and lobby.
  • Decide how a structured environment will be maintained for those students choosing to walkout, and those students choosing not to participate. In both instances, remember to be careful about viewpoint discrimination.
  • Provide talking points to staff to share with community members who ask questions.


Media

  • Use your key messages.
  • Understand you don’t have to allow the media into your buildings, parking lots, or campus.
  • Know that there is nothing to prevent them from setting up outside, across the street.


Sample Letter

Need to let your parents and community know how you're handling walkouts and protest? View a sample letter from a district to a community. 

View Letter

What Can Students Do

Students can make their schools safer and more inclusive by working with their peers, teachers, administrators and community members.

Learn More