Schools in the Baltimore region prepare for national student walkout; Harford County opts out

As school districts in the Baltimore region prepare for student walkouts next week as part of a national protest against gun violence, Harford County Public Schools has decided to prohibit students from participating in the event.

Barbara Canavan, the school district’s superintendent, was unequivocal in a letter she wrote to students Thursday. They will not be allowed to walk out of school, and those who do “may be subject to disciplinary action for disrupting school operations,” according to the letter.

Canavan wrote that walking out of school “presents, paradoxically, a threat to student safety” because students will be outside unsupervised. The district is instead preparing a “learning module” to provide students with the chance to share their feelings about the rash of school shootings, she wrote.

“Keeping students safe while they discuss their feelings surrounding the recent tragedy is our priority,” she wrote. “This activity will provide a means for students of varying perspectives to engage in a positive dialogue while remaining in a safe and secure environment.”

Superintendents and administrators in other school districts are taking different approaches to the walkout scheduled for Wednesday morning, the one-month anniversary of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

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.”

The shooting deaths of the 17 students and educators at the school galvanized students across the country to rally against gun violence and advocate for increased state and federal gun control legislation. The event calls for students, teachers and administrators to walk out of school for 17 minutes Wednesday as a tribute to each of the people who were fatally shot at the Parkland high school on Valentine’s Day.

In Baltimore city, the school system is encouraging principals to designate space and time within their buildings for students to discuss gun violence and “identify effective ways to advance their priorities.” Earlier this week, hundreds of Baltimore students organized a protest of their own — leaving class and marching miles to City Hall to call for change.

“Principals of schools whose students participated will continue working with their school communities to ensure future protests are both productive and safe,” city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement about Tuesday’s march.

City schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said students will not be disciplined for “peaceful participation.”

Anne Arundel County Public Schools also are encouraging students to find alternative ways to make their voices heard, echoing the concern that a coordinated walk-out at a specified time poses a safety hazard.

Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said the system neither encourages nor endorses hundreds of students leaving the classroom to walk outside unsupervised and congregate in a small area at a predictable time.

In a letter to parents Feb. 28, Superintendent George Arlotto directed principals to work with student leaders to develop alternatives to the walk out. That could mean students all wearing ribbons of support, he said, or leaving class but remaining inside the school building.

"The point is for students to help their schools develop something meaningful to them, and that may vary from school to school," he said in the letter.

He has not directed principals to impose specific disciplinary actions, such as suspensions, for those who walk out. But he said the system does have a code of student conduct that students are expected to follow.

"It is my hope that students working collaboratively with school administrations can develop appropriate and safe outlets that allow our children to express their passion around this important issue," he said.

In Howard County, there are also no consequences for student participation so long as it “remains peaceful and adheres to all [Howard County Public School System] policies,” according to a statement from spokesman Brian Bassett. The administration plans to designate staff to provide supervision at each school’s walkout location.

Carroll County’s assistant superintendent of instruction, Steve Johnson, said in a statement that school administrators have been encouraged to proactively talk to students about the action.

“Any disciplinary action would be situational and would most likely occur if a student ignores the request of an administrator,” he said.

Harford County’s prohibition on student participation in the walkout disappointed Kimberly Lynch, the mother of a C. Milton Wright High School sophomore, who sent Lynch a copy of the letter she received Thursday.

In her own letter to the superintendent, Lynch wrote that the district was asking students to give up their constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and protest.

“We tell them the 2nd Amendment right ‘shall not be infringed’ so there’s not much to be done to stop these shootings,” she wrote, referring to the constitutional amendment that allows Americans to have guns. “But then we ask them to give up their Constitutional rights to speech, assembly, and protest in the name of ‘school safety’. That is insanity.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Rachael Pacella and Kate Magill contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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