Carroll schools won't participate in upcoming school walkout; other Maryland systems prepare

As students here and across the country are expected to participate in the next scheduled walkout against gun violence on April 20, Carroll County public school students will not be allowed to participate.

Other area school systems, meanwhile, are still discussing how to handle the protest, which is being held on the anniversary of the deadly 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, in which two teens killed 13 classmates before taking their own lives.

Carroll Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said Thursday he’s uncomfortable with how the student-led protests held since the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have become increasingly political.

He said he believes the upcoming walkout is of a different nature than the first walkout on March 14, which was held on the one-month anniversary of the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla. Carroll County students were among the hundreds of thousands of children nationwide who poured out of their school buildings that day and held 17 minutes of silence to honor the slain students and educators.

“I don’t mind when students express sympathy for the victims,” he said. “But I believe there has been an attempt by adults and others to change the narrative, change the meaning and tie their agendas to student walkouts.”

Guthrie said he’s heard from parents concerned that teachers are trying to push “a gun control agenda” by talking about the walkout during school hours. Some people crowded into Wednesday night’s school board meeting wearing matching white T-shirts that read “Political bias in classrooms” with a red circle around it and a line through the text.

The president of the Carroll County teachers’ union rejected the idea that educators are pushing their political beliefs on students.

“It’s simple,” Teresa McCulloh said. “We do not engage in any political action in the classroom.”

Still, Guthrie said, the “different political agendas circling in the wind” may be confusing to students.

“We’re simply going to have a school day on April 20,” he said. “Hopefully no students try to test that. If they do, any attempt to disrupt the school day will be met with the appropriate consequences according to our code of conduct.”

Those consequences could range from a parent-teacher conference to a suspension or Saturday school, he said.

A spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland said the group will be watching for how these potential punishments are doled out.

“The ACLU will be monitoring how school officials in Carroll County and across Maryland respond to further walkouts to ensure that students who miss class for an act of political expression are not disciplined more harshly than students who miss class for other reasons,” said communications director Meredith Curtis Goode.

She cited the 1969 Supreme Court decision that found students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Matthew Geiger, a junior at South Carroll High School, said it was frustrating to hear the superintendent dismiss student activism. One of the main reason students are taking part in the school walkouts and other protests is because they don’t feel safe in school, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a political party assigned to being safe in schools,” said the 16-year-old.

Several schools in the Baltimore region have registered to participate in the April 20 event, including at least one in Carroll County. The stated purpose of the walkout, according to its website, is to protest “violence in schools and the lack of change that has occurred to stop that.”

Guthrie disagreed with that premise: He said much has changed in Maryland since the Parkland shooting, and the more recent school shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County.

Carroll officials announced last month plans to put armed law enforcement officers in some county schools. And the Maryland General Assembly recently passed sweeping legislation aimed at school safety, with plans to funnel millions of dollars toward improving security and student services.

Other counties in the region are still discussing plans for how to react to next week’s walkout. Their responses varied during the last student walkout, with many districts encouraging principals to designate a place within their buildings for students to congregate. Some officials worried that mass, organized walkouts would present a safety risk.

Only Harford County issued a statement condemning participation in the March 14 rally. Barbara Canavan, the school district’s superintendent, wrote in a letter to families that students who did take part “may be subject to disciplinary action for disrupting school operations.” County officials were not available Wednesday to comment on plans for the April 20 event.

Baltimore City Public Schools officials said they stand by their previous statement on school walkouts. The school system previously encouraged principals to designate space and time within their buildings for students to discuss gun violence and “identify effective ways to advance their priorities.”

City schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said in March that students would not be disciplined for “peaceful participation.”

In Howard County, district officials are still working through how to prepare for the April 20 walkout.

“School administrators are going to be working with students to make sure this isn’t disruptive to the day,” said spokesman Brian Bassett. “We’re trying to get a handle on what students are planning. … For us, the best way we can handle this is to help guide our students to understand the issues and allow them the opportunity to have conversations and lead conversations on the issues.”

Anne Arundel County officials are also in the midst of discussions on how to handle the upcoming event.

Baltimore County school officials said in a statement that students have the right to express themselves and “principals will receive guidance on working with their students, but safety is the top priority and following school system policies will be the base of the guidance.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Emily Chappell contributed to this article.

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