Ahead of student walkouts, Baltimore area schools try to balance safety and free speech concerns

The ACLU of Maryland has sent letters to the school systems in Harford and Cecil counties, warning administrators not to punish students too harshly for taking part in the national student walkout against gun violence planned for Wednesday.

The letters are a response to complaints the organization has received from students and parents in those counties, who say administrators are threatening to punish students who walk out.


Student across the country plan to walk out of classes at 10 a.m. Wednesday as part of an effort to bring attention to gun violence and call for gun control measures following the shooting deaths last month of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

Elsewhere in the Baltimore area, the planned walkouts have been coordinated between student leaders, who feel strongly about publicly voicing their concerns about gun violence, and school administrators trying to balance keeping the young people safe during the protests and giving them space to speak out. In some schools, for instance, students will have assemblies, in others they will go onto the athletic fields.


Josie Shaffer, a student representative on the Baltimore County school board who is in touch with other student organizers, said she felt hopeful about the student action.

“A lot of students are rising up because they want to feel safe in their schools and they have a right to,” she said.

But in some areas in the state, school administrators took a different stance and prohibited students from staging walkouts, and threatened to punish those who take part. This prompted and the ACLU to step in to protect the right of students to participate in an act of civil disobedience.

“There is a whole body of case law that says that kids don’t give up their rights by walking in the schoolhouse door,” said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the ACLU. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that public school students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."


When school officials threaten to impose discipline for particular speech, they are, in effect, prohibiting it, Kumar said.

As a result, students can’t be punished for taking part in a walkout because it has a political message, although they could receive the same punishment they normally would get for walking out of a class, she said. The ACLU letter cautioned school districts not to “punish students more severely for leaving class to engage in free speech activity then they would for any other unexcused absence,” according to a press release by the organization.

A letter sent last week to parents and students by the Harford County schools superintendent, Barbara Canavan, warned that if students participate in the walkout they may be punished for “disrupting school operations.”

Kumar said the ACLU has fielded complaints from parents and students in other areas of the state, but she had not verified whether other school systems were attempting to thwart the walkout.

The Cecil County superintendent responded to the ACLU, saying that she has instructed administrators to allow students to walk out without being punished.

A spokeswoman for the Harford County school system did not respond to a request for comment.

Students, parents and community members in Harford County urged the Harford County Board of Education Monday night to reconsider and reverse the prohibition on student participation in the walkout.

“They’re walking out to send a message to those who won’t do anything about their safety,” Nicholas Maivelett, a 2016 graduate of C. Milton Wright High School and a student at Harford Community College, told the board.

He was one of a handful of speakers who criticized Canavan’s directive that participation in the walkout would not be allowed and any students leaving school would face possible unspecified disciplinary action.

The board members did not budge and Canavan did not attend Monday’s board meeting.

School board President Joseph Voskuhl said the board had not taken a position on the superintendent’s action, calling it an “operational decision.” In his view, Voskuhl said, principals must be trusted to handle things on Wednesday.

“They will do what is best for the students that day,” said Voskuhl, a former Bel Air High School principal.

Matt Resnik, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School who is the student school board representative, said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that students should protest on the weekend and contact their legislators to show “they really care about the issues, and they’re not just trying to get out of class.”

“The superintendent and her staff are in no way trying to limit the rights of students or deny them any of their God-given rights, but again, it just comes down to time and place, and the protesting that the students want to do is just not the time and not the place,” Resnik said.

Towson High School student Hope Steger said there was little tension between administrators at her high school and students because they wanted to collaborate.

“We said we want to organize it because the whole walkout is about students learning to advocate for themselves and make change within their community and the nation, ultimately,” she said.

Steger said about half the students in the school have signed up to participate and she expects an even higher number to decide to leave when the moment comes. Students will go to the assembly where there will be an outside speaker and and a discussion about protesting effectively.

School leaders also will hand out bright orange rubber bracelets with “#neveragain” and “Towson High School National School Walkout” printed on them.

“I actually think the organization of it will make it more effective,” she said.

One local school district says students will not be allowed to walk out of school for the event.

Students at about nine Baltimore County schools are taking part in the walkout, Shaffer said.

At Franklin High School, where students had to sign up in advance, about 800 students, or half the high school, are expected to participate. Events also are planned at Catonsville, Chesapeake, Dulaney, Loch Raven and Perry Hall high schools in the county.

Interim schools superintendent Verletta White issued a statement saying she had provided guidance to school principals and staff to prepare for planned or spontaneous peaceful demonstrations.

“We view these moments as learning opportunities while providing structure and protecting the instructional focus of our schools,” White said.

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At a recent school board meeting, Shaffer made an impassioned plea asking for adults to help students amplify their voices. She also called on school board members to speak publicly in support of the walkouts and a larger protest planned for March 24 in Washington. The county board members did not respond or react to Shaffer’s request at the Feb. 20th board meeting, and have not publicly commented on the walkout.


“I want to hear support from the board. I know they have said it privately, but I don’t know whether privately is enough,” Shaffer said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is a ‘I am scared to go to a place that I thought was safe’ issue. I should not be afraid to go to school. We have the right to get an education without constantly fearing that someone with an assault rifle will enter the building. Something has to change.”

Hundreds of Baltimore students walked out of class and marched to City Hall on Tuesday to protest gun violence and call for stricter gun control legislation.

Some people have speculated that student organizers are being helped or directed by adults working behind the scenes.

Shaffer said any suggestion that adults are privately leading the students or organizing the walkouts in the county is false.

“I think students are really in control of the events,” she said.

The Baltimore Sun Media Group’s David Anderson contributed to this article.

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