A rural Somerset County school district said that students and staff will be penalized if they choose to take part in the national school walk out planned for Wednesday, March 14, to protest gun violence.
The walkout will last 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 people killed in the Parkland, Fla. school shooting last month. In a letter, RSU 83 superintendent Virginia Rebar said she and other school leaders had safety concerns about the walkout, and that they were worried allowing students to take part would present legal problems for the district for First Amendment reasons.
In her letter, Rebar, who didn't immediately return Maine Public's call for comment, said students and staff do not have a First Amendment right to disrupt or interrupt the school day for political advocacy. If they walk out, they will be considered absent without permission, and be subject to normal disciplinary procedures. She also said that “students and staff having views differing from those of the Walkout (sic.) would have to have an equal opportunity to express their views. Scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the District.”
Schools are within their rights to discipline students and staff for being absent without permission while engaging in political speech, according to ACLU of Maine Executive Director Alison Beyea, although they're not allowed to punish students more harshly because they disagree with the content of their actions.
Some districts in Maine are working with students on the protests. Superintendent Mike Hammer of RSU 19, a rural district with schools in Somerset and Penobscot Counties, said the student council president is leading the walkout at Nokomis Regional High School, and that Hammer, the student and the school's principal have met to discuss it. Hammer said the walkout will focus on the stories of the students, rather than on gun control or any political objective.
“If students don't want to go out, that's their opinion, but I think if we withheld their rights on the other side, I don't know how that would work out, and if they would become more oppositional to our stance on it,” said Hammer.
Hammer said the Maine School Management Association (MSMA) had provided guidance to school districts on how to deal with the walkout. The MSMA didn't immediately return our call for comment, but Hammer said the association gave superintendents “two or three scenarios that we could go with, anything from not letting kids get out, to making it a recess, to just full-on support and having all the kids participate. So we're kind of in the middle where we want to see it student-led.”
More than a dozen schools in Maine have students planning to take part in the walkout, some in cooperation with school administrators. At other districts, like the Portland Public Schools, administrators are still trying to figure out how to proceed.
The ACLU of Maine's Alison Beyea said the organization has been hearing from schools that are “using it as a wonderful opportunity to teach about the importance of expression and protest in this country. And we are heartened to see that kind of approach.” Beyea said she had not heard about any other schools prohibiting the protest.