Gun control is one of the chief issues for the National Student Walkout planned for March 14, but students at one South Carolina high school are being ordered not to mention the topic if they join the protest.
Instead, students at Greenville’s Powdersville High School are being told they can participate only if they’re honoring victims of school violence, including the 17 students and staff shot and killed last month in Parkland, Florida.
“This event will not be a gun control protest organized by the school,” Principal Chris Ferguson wrote in a Facebook post. “In fact, any students involved in the event have been asked to focus on school safety, including increased mental health counselors and increased funding and training for SRO officers, not gun control.”
Ferguson’s post comes in response to what he calls “erroneous information” shared by a media outlet that the school was organizing a gun control protest. “At no time has Dr. Ferguson or Powdersville High School attempted to encourage or facilitate a gun control protest,” says the schools Facebook page.
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Reaction to the post has been a mix of strong support for the principal and outrage that students are being told to stifle their opinions.
“The purpose of the nationwide walkout clearly states that this is to demand that Congress pass legislation (gun control) to help keep schools safe,” posted Julie Jones-Kelly on the school’s Facebook page. “I support the walkout, but to say this is not about gun control is 100 percent incorrect. You can ask the students to use this walkout to remember all those innocent people that have been victims, but don't even try to say that this is not about gun control.”
“My son has my full support should he choose to peacefully demonstrate in favor of school safety, gun control, or any other issue that he deems worthy,” said parent Andrea Pastorelli Smith. “I raised him well and I trust his judgment. At age 15, he has a right to his own views.”
“These kids are the ones in school having to deal with this issue, not us,” posted Jo Stephens on Facebook, “and I feel that they have every right to make their opinions known in a peaceful manner.”
The National Student Walkout takes place one month after 17 died during a mass shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. The surviving students have taken the lead in an ongoing protest that has won national attention.
Organizers of the National Student Walkout, including the Women’s March and Women’s March Youth, are calling for students, teachers and administrators to walk out of schools for 17 minutes on March 14, starting at 10 a.m. That’s one minute for each person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
“We need action,” says the Women’s March on its Facebook page. “Students and allies are organizing the National School Walkout 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. Students and staff have the right to teach and learn in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms.”
The walkout is not without controversy. Some schools are not recognizing the walkout and plan to discipline students who participate, reports USAToday. Schools like Powdersville are taking a neutral approach, allowing the walkout but not encouraging it. Students who wish not to participate at the school are asked to remain in class, said Ferguson.
Like many other schools, Powerdersville says its chief goal during the event is to ensure the walkout is controlled and safe.
The ACLU has warned students their actions could have consequences during the walkout.
“Here’s the gist,” said tweet from the American Civil Liberties Union: “Your school can punish you for missing class, just like they always can, but it can’t punish you more harshly for protesting than if you were missing class for another reason.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg principals are being told to prepare for students to take part in the walkout. A note issued weeks ago by Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ urged principals to talk with student leaders, know the plans and keep students on campus.
“CMS supports students’ constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and free expression,” Russ wrote. “Our goal in responding to walk-out plans and other forms of peaceful assembly is to try and keep focus on teaching and learning while providing guidance and planning to support student and staff safety.”