Catonsville High School students will not be disciplined for participating in a March 14 walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence, but their parents will be notified if they stay outside the school longer than the 17 minutes planned for the walkout, Principal Matthew Ames said.
The protest is a nationwide movement being organized by the group Women’s March Youth EMPOWER to call attention to the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 14 fatal shooting of 17 people, 14 students and 3 staff members, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The protest is scheduled for 10 a.m. Students plan to stay outside for 17 minutes, to honor the 17 lives lost that day.
But, Ames said, if students do not return after 17 minutes, the school will notify their parents, alerting them that their child did not return to school.
The school is preparing to treat the walk-out much like an evacuation, Ames said during a monthly PTSA meeting Wednesday night held at Catonsville High. About two dozen people were in attendance. Much of the conversation was focused on school safety and the March 14 walkout.
Ultimately, “the consequence is that they [the students] missed instruction,” Ames said at the meeting.
Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said there will not be consequences for students who participate.
“Our goal is to provide a constructive way for students to exercise their first amendment rights and at the same time we want to use it as a teachable moment,” he wrote in a statement. “We suggested that principals create ways to have a discussion with the students about why they wanted to take part and what they hoped to learn and express from participating.”
Teachers, Ames said, will take attendance before the 10 a.m. walkout, and will note which students do not return to class. Teachers who are not teaching during that time will guide students exiting the building and monitor them while they are outside. The school, Ames said, is hoping to arrange for extra police presence.
If students opt to stay outside past the planned 17 minutes, Ames said, school officials will attempt to engage with the students, bringing them into some kind of open forum of conversation.
“I will have a plan in place,” Ames said. “My job is to keep your children safe, and I take it very, very seriously.”
Ames described his role as principal as that of “the fulcrum on the see-saw,” balancing students’ right to free speech with security.
Though administrators and teachers will monitor students on campus, Ames said, they do not have the resources to follow them if they leave the school to demonstrate elsewhere.
Catherine Fu, treasurer of the PTSA, praised the principal for his preparation and even-handedness.
“That’s so typical of Mr. Ames,” she said after the meeting. “He already knows what’s going on, and already has a plan in place."
“I’m really appreciative of their willingness to work with us and have an open dialogue,” Gabriella McLean, president of the senior class, said after the meeting.
Ames said he is also being careful to support both those who want to protest and those who do not.
“To alienate one kid out of 1,783 [the number of students at Catonsville High] is a problem for me,” Ames said.
McLean said that she and other student leaders are working to make sure that students planning to protest are “on the same page,” and that those who choose not to are able to stay in class. She said that she has seen a lot of interest in the event.
“I think that our generation understands that this is our time, and we have to take this on,” McLean said. Though she feels Catonsville High is safe, she said that in this day of so many school shootings, “for many people, it’s scary to come to school.”
McLean said she hopes the walkout will spur legislators to enact stricter gun control laws. “Anything, really, would be great,” she said. “Something needs to change.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.