Ban on Harford students walking out stands, as nationwide school safety protest approaches

Despite pleas for a reversal from students, parents and community members, the Harford County Public Schools administration remains adamant that students cannot participate in a nationwide walkout Wednesday to bring attention school safety and gun control concerns.

“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 Harford County Board of Education at its meeting in Bel Air Monday night.

He was one of a handful of speakers who criticized a directive issued last week by Superintendent Barbara Canavan that participation in the walkout would not be allowed and any students leaving school would face possible unspecified disciplinary action.

The Harford school system also received a letter from ACLU of Maryland on Monday warning of potential legal action if students’ rights are violated.

“We are deeply concerned that the letter’s tone and content have created the impression that Harford County Public Schools is unlawfully forbidding students from participating in the walkouts and suggesting that students who participate may be punished more severely for leaving class than would be the case for any other unexcused absence,” according to the letter, signed by staff attorney Sonia Kumar and Gina Elleby, intake and investigations manager.

The authors wrote that “the First Amendment prohibits schools from punishing or threatening to punish student conduct more harshly solely because that conduct is politically motivated.”

In her March 7 letter sent to students and parents, Canavan said allowing students to leave school, even for 17 minutes to stand in solidarity with others on the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 students and faculty at a Parkland, Fla. high school, would pose a safety threat. She cited concerns that students couldn’t be property supervised, according to the letter.

“Students who leave buildings may be subject to disciplinary action for disrupting school operations,” Canavan wrote.

Students in high schools, colleges and universities across the nation, including one private school in Harford County, plan to participate in Wednesday’s 10 a.m. walkout, which is coordinated by Women’s March Youth EMPOWER to demand Congress pass gun control legislation in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Maivelett is organizing a walkout at HCC; meanwhile, a prayer service is planned for ouside the private John Carroll School in Bel Air at the same time as the walkout. Students at three Harford high schools, Aberdeen, Fallston and Havre de Grace High School, posted on a website set up by Women’s March that they planned to walk out.

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.

Canavan did not attend Monday’s board meeting. She was in Annapolis attending a reception for new Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools, one of which is Fallston Middle School.

Her letter last week stated schools would present an alternate “learning module” for secondary school students at the same time as the walkout, during which they can “share their feelings about recent events across the nation” and “speak about solutions in a structured way,” according to the letter.

Student school board representative Matt Resnik, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School, 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.

Passion reignited

Several board meeting speakers said students should be able to have their voices heard and disputed Canavan’s rationale for the walkout ban.

“The thought that we will be more vulnerable outside the school for the walkout kind of reignited my passion for this protest, because if I’m not safe outside of the school, where I leave the school every day, then why would I be safe inside?” Maggie Jones, a senior in the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Edgewood High School and a Forest Hill resident, told the board.

Her mother, Suzanne Crockett-Jones, took school officials to task on the so-called learning modules, saying they would allow adults to pretend students “don’t have a voice, they don’t have rights — we can pretend that they don’t have fear.”

“If students are empowered to have their voices heard, then our schools have done a good job of creating citizens who are participants in a democracy,” Crockett-Jones said.

The learning modules will not be open for local media to cover, according to HCPS Manager of Communications Jillian Lader, who denied a request from The Aegis Monday to have a reporter present at one of the high schools Wednesday.

“Harford County Public Schools is not inviting media to attend the activities planned as an alternative to the national walkout campaigns tomorrow morning,” Lader said in an email Tuesday. “Our goal in providing an opportunity for our students to dialogue in the schools, is that it be open, honest and meaningful to the students in a safe environment that protects their privacy.”

Following Monday’s meeting, board member Jansen Robinson said the modules should be open to the media and the public, “especially if it does not impact the safety of children.”

Board member Robert Frisch said the superintendent’s decisions had not been discussed with the board ahead of time.

“Those kinds of issues, while it’s the superintendent’s decision, I think we’d be better off if there was a discussion involving the board,” he said.

Frisch said such a discussion would allow the superintendent to learn board members’ thoughts and “we can all get behind a decision in advance.”

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers’ union, said teachers will not participate in or condone any walkout.

He said teachers must comply with the learning modules, as they are a directive from the superintendent. Failure to do so would risk “discipline or dismissal” for individual teachers, he said, as well as possible sanctions against the union.

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