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Students Get Mixed Messages On Whether Protesting Will Get Them In Trouble

Vikiana Petit-Homme, 16, led a meeting in Boston this week to recruit more students for the national student walk out planned for March 14. "We're just going to do what we have to," she says.
Tovia Smith

After last month's mass shooting a Florida high school, students around the nation have staged walk-outs, rallies and other demonstrations to advocate for stricter gun measures. In response, some school administrators have threatened to suspend students who protest, and are being criticized for cracking down too hard. At the same time, many colleges are sending the opposite message, encouraging and congratulating students' activism.

In Boston, New Mission High School junior Ariyana Jones says many students at her school have been scared off from participating.

"Teachers will tell you straight up if you walk out, you will get written up and suspended," she says. "They are trying to intimidate us, and I feel like it's working because they don't want to get that on their record or get in trouble."

Needville, Texas Superintendent Curtis Rhodes, was more explicit, posting a warning on Facebook forbidding demonstrations during school hours, and threatening 3-day suspensions for anyone taking part. "Life is all about choices, and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative," he wrote. "We will discipline no matter it if is one, fifty or five hundred students involved... and parent notes will not alleviate the discipline."

The post has since been taken down, and the school declined comment, but the warning got students worried — and got lawyers involved.

"Really what that is, is retaliation for a student expressing their first amendment rights," says Texas ACLU Staff Attorney Kali Cohen. She says the hard line approach is not only unconstitutional, but also flies in the face of public schools' mission, as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to prepare young people to be engaged citizens.

And colleges couldn't agree more. Scores of colleges have posted and tweeted to reassure students that if they get suspended for taking part in a peaceful protest, it will not diminish their chances of getting accepted. As MIT put it, students do not have to "choose between speaking out and getting in."

Brandeis echoed the sentiment, tweeting "#Brandeis supports students' right to stand up for their beliefs." The tweet not only assured students their admission would not be jeopardized if they were disciplined for peaceful protest, but the tweet went further to urge them to go for it, saying "Speak up, speak out."

Brandeis says such activism , not only won't hurt students' chances of getting accepted, but may actually help.

"Having the bravery to stand up, to organize people, that takes a lot of courage and that is certainly something that I think would be applauded here," said Brandeis University Dean of Admissions Jennifer Walker. "From a Brandeis perspective, I think speaking up and speaking out is a good fit for our campus culture."

Students like Michael Martinez, a junior at Weston High School in Massachusetts, are taking comfort in the overwhelming support from colleges. Having personally lost a close relative and a family friend to gun violence, he's volunteering to help coordinate students across Massachusetts to join the National Walk-Out planned for March 14. "We want this to be more than just a march," Martinez says. He's organizing an afternoon of lobbying at the State House, to follow the walk out.

"This is an opportunity for students to really, really get involved in a way that I don't think a lot of students have ever been before," he says. "Young people to practice civic responsibility, service, community leadership and advocacy. I mean, it's a real life lesson, and a lot more valuable than anything a student would be learning in a classroom that day."

Student organizer Vikiana Petit-Homme, a junior at Boston Latin Academy, agrees.

Student organizer Vikiana Petit-Homme, 16, writes out the agenda in advance of a meeting about joining a national student walk-out on March 14. That date marks one month since the mass shooting at a Florida school that left 17 people killed.
Tovia Smith / NPR
Student organizer Vikiana Petit-Homme, 16, writes out the agenda in advance of a meeting about joining a national student walk-out on March 14. That date marks one month since the mass shooting at a Florida school that left 17 people killed.

"Schools should be encouraging youth to speak," she says. "They are there to prepare kids for the future, and [that means] learning to make sure we're heard. They should not be silencing us."

The outcry from students and parents and the response from colleges seems to have prompted some high schools to soften their stance.

In Virginia, the Prince William County schools sent out a letter last month warning students that those who disrupt classes or leave school without permission will face disciplinary action. But after a bit of a uproar, officials sent a second letter the next day saying they had "clearly sent the wrong message" and promising to "allow for some flexibility."

But neither can it just be anarchy, says Associate Superintendent Phil Kavits; Schools have to balance students' rights with student safety.

"There have been examples in the past where people have had walk outs and decided to march down busy streets," Kavits says. "And when they do that, we've lost the ability to keep them safe."

Just this week, some 700 middle school students staged a walk out, after informing school officials that it was coming, and getting their blessing.

In Boston, high school students gathered to plan their March 14 walk out were waiting to hear how friendly their administrators would be to the idea, when School Superintendent Tommy Chang popped in unexpectedly, and pleasantly surprised them. He praised their work, and assured them they will not be disciplined for it.

It was welcome news to students like Petit-Homme. But she's quick to add, no official policy would have stopped her anyway.

"At this point, we've seen the adults are not doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is to keep us safe," she says. "So we're done with going to them and asking for permission. At this point we're just going to do what we have to."

Yes, Petit-Homme says, protests will be peaceful, but she says students cannot promise that they'll never disrupt the school day.

"The whole point is to be disruptive, to make sure we catch your attention. It's to make sure that you are hearing us. So causing a disruption is exactly what we're going for."

There's no guarantee if, or when, it may result in real change. But it will almost certainly make for a college application essay the admissions committee will love.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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