- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2018

The allure of a White House demonstration may be enticing to local grade school and college students planning to walkout of their classes Wednesday, but public school officials are urging — if not outright warning — them to rethink that action.

The young people’s arm of the Women’s March, called Youth EMPOWER, is organizing a 17-minute moment of silence at 10 a.m. Wednesday outside the White House to commemorate the 17 students and adults gunned down one month ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Calls for stricter gun control are expected during the event.

But officials in public school districts in the greater Washington area say that students who participate in the walkout or leave campus during it could face disciplinary action.

“School staff will neither encourage nor discourage participation in a walkout,” Alexandria Schools Interim Superintendent Lois Berlin told parents in a letter this week.

Alexandria schools have organized campus-wide 17-minute silences for the day and have asked students not leave school grounds afterward, Ms. Berlin said.

Fairfax County students who leave school to attend the 17 minutes of silence at the White House could be subject to disciplinary action, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said Monday in an email.

“Pursuant to Supreme Court rulings on the issue of student free speech rights, FCPS students do not lose their constitutional protections ‘at the schoolhouse gate,’” Mr. Brabrand said the email. “As such, students have the right to participate as long as their activities do not disrupt the instructional day.”

The schools chief was referring to, in part, the 1969 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines, which established that schools cannot deny students’ First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

According to the National School Walkout map on the Youth EMPOWER website, some of the local public schools where student walkouts are planned include Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and Fusion Academy in the District, Montgomery Blair High School and Takoma Park Middle School in Montgomery County, Washington-Lee High School in Arlington and Joyce Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax County.

“We plan to take full advantage of our proximity to the nation’s capital and participate in the 17 minutes of silence in front of the White House,” the Montgomery County student-led group “MoCo Students for Gun Control” said in a social media post.

Citing safety concerns, school officials are proposing alternative actions, such as holding a 17-minute moment of silence on school grounds and requiring students to return to class afterward. Alexandria officials have said any elementary school participants must be signed out by their parents and returned to class after the moment of silence.

“We don’t have the resources to go with students heading to Washington, D.C., to protest,” said Gboyinde Onijala, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools.

“What our principals have done is work with student groups to come up with alternative plans,” Ms. Onijala said. “Walking on the track, writing letters, some are going to have a moment of silence.”

What’s more, public schools in Montgomery County, Arlington County, Fairfax County and in the District, as well as D.C. charter schools, plan to penalize students who leave school grounds with an “unexplained absence.”

Spokespeople from each school district also told The Washington Times that students must refrain from participating from walkouts if their parents request they remain in class.

“Participating in a walkout is an individual family’s decision and we encourage you to discuss your child’s plans,” D.C. Public Schools have suggested principals tell parents in a sample email shared with The Times.

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