As students across America geared up to walk out of class for 17 minutes to honor each person killed in last month's school shooting in Parkland, Florida—and demand gun reform—some did so knowing they might be punished. Across the country, rogue local school officials have teased a hardline approach for those who ultimately take part in the walkout, with threats ranging from students being slapped with unexcused absences to undisclosed disciplinary.
Harford County Public Schools in Maryland warned of "disciplinary action" for any student who left campus for the walkout, citing it as a safety threat, the Baltimore Sun reported. Students in New Jersey's Sayreville School District were also slated to face reprisal unless their parents signed them out. And Bentonville Schools in Arkansas said the plan was to give participants detention.
Numerous school districts in Atlanta appeared to take a similar approach, with Gwinett, Fayette, Fulton, Hall, and Cobb County students facing possible discipline, a local Fox affiliate reported. Although the school officials in Georgia, like those in other states, were vague about what that punishment might look like, plenty of students expressed willingness to take the risk. Some 280 Pope High School students under Cobb County's jurisdiction planned to walkout regardless, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, though the number that actually did so early Wednesday was not clear at the time of publication.
"The reason we are doing this is because we love our education so much" Pope senior Madeleine Deisen told the paper. "We want to be able to focus on reading literature, on playing the violin, on learning calculus. We don’t want to be sitting in those classrooms and worried about what would happen... We are doing this because we want the safety to learn."
In its 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision, the Supreme Court held that public school students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Still, experts say schools are likely well within their rights to punish students for what they can claim amounted to an unexcused absence or disruptive demonstration.
Some students have already faced suspensions ahead of the March 14 walkout, which was largely organized by an arm of the Women's March called Empower. Last month, the superintendent for Needville Independent School District outside of Houston, Texas, threatened to suspend kids for three days should they try to organize or participate in "any type of protest." And dozens of students at Ingleside Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona—where, full disclosure, I attended—were suspended in February for walking off campus during a protest organized nearly two weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
"It's important for me to speak my mind on this topic," Ingleside eighth-grader Layla Defibaugh, told the Associated Press. "At the end of the day, they shouldn't be able to punish us for exercising our First Amendment rights."
Students at those schools were on spring break this week, but will still have their chance to join in on the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC, and various satellite cities on Saturday, March 24. There's also another slate of school walkouts planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High in Colorado.
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