Local schools are planning to deal with a planned national student walkout on Wednesday that’s intended to keep up pressure on lawmakers to tighten gun laws and make schools safer.
Wednesday is the one-month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 dead in Parkland, Fla. High school students across the nation plan to walk out of class for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. to raise awareness of the need for safer schools.
In a letter to parents, Stephen Hefner, superintendent of Lexington-Richland School District 5 in the Irmo-Dutch Fork-Chapin areas, said school officials met with student leaders on Friday to discuss what is called National Walkout Day.
“As a result of these conversations, high school students in School District Five have collaboratively created a plan to observe National Walkout Day,” he wrote. “Their plan includes staying inside schools to ensure safety and utilizing that time to communicate to lawmakers their own personal views on school safety.
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“Student leaders at the high schools will also provide information on registering to vote,” Hefner continued. “There are no plans for middle, intermediate or elementary school students to participate directly in this event; however, all schools have planned for impromptu events.”
It is unclear how many schools will have walkouts, but spokespeople for the districts said the schools were working to balance the students’ right to free speech with their safety.
“After the 17-minute event, students will be expected to return to class,” said Karen York, director of communication for Richland District 1 in the downtown Columbia, St. Andrews and Lower Richland areas. “Staff supervision will be provided to ensure the walkouts occur in a safe and orderly manner. We also will have assistance and support from local law enforcement agencies.”
In Lexington District 2 in Cayce-West Columbia, “administrators are working with students to identify a designated spot at each school for any such gathering,” spokeswoman Dawn Kujawa said. “The activity might be a reading of the victims’ names, moment of silence, etc. This is still in discussion at the school level; I have not yet heard definitively about which schools will have events and what those events might be.”
In Richland District 2 in northeast Richland County, Superintendent Baron Davis said in a message to parents and employees that he also met with student leaders from all five the district’s high schools as well as principals from the middle and elementary schools. “We stressed the importance of school safety and reviewed students’ First Amendment rights.”
If students demonstrate on Wednesday, “it is our expectation that students will respect the rules of our schools and remain inside our school buildings to protect their safety and the safety of others,” Davis wrote. After a “short time,” administrators will acknowledge students’ interest in the issue, and students will be directed “to return to their normal activity.”
“As long a students follow those directions and no disruption occurs, no disciplinary action is needed.”
In Lexington 1 in the Lexington, Gilbert and Pelion communities, Superintendent Greg Little sent a message to parents saying administrators are not encouraging or discouraging participation on Wednesday. If students decide to participate in a “17-minute, peaceful, silent observance,” schools will provide supervision, and police will be available to ensure the students’ safety.
The district will not take disciplinary action against students who participate in such an observance “as long as the student immediately returns to class after that time” and adheres to school policies and procedures.
Shaundra Young Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, urged schools not to punish students as a result of the walkouts:
“There could be no better learning opportunity for how to engage in civil society than to stand up for what you believe in, to call on elected officials to live up to their obligation to constituents, and to organize for the change you want to see in the world,” she wrote. “The Supreme Court ruled long ago that civil rights do not end at the schoolhouse gate. Therefore, schools have no legal basis to punish students for protest.”
The Walkout Day is the first of what is anticipated to be a series of event by students demanding stricter gun control and stronger safety measures in schools.
The national events will be followed by a March for our Lives walk in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to call for stricter gun legislation. Another walkout is planned for April 20 to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings near Denver, Colorado.