The gun control movement notched a public relations coup with last week’s massive school walkouts, but now school districts that pitched in to ensure the protest’s success are stuck with the rising political and legal fallout.
A week after the March 14 walkout, school officials are grappling with complaints from parents outraged by the specter of their kids engaged in political protesting on school time, as well as reports of criminal mischief committed by teens who treated the event as a get-out-of-class-free card.
What’s more, the students get to do it all again next month. A substantially identical event, also called the National School Walkout, is scheduled for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.
Chris Cleveland, chairman of the Chicago Republican Party, said he worried that the walkouts, aimed at pushing for tougher gun restrictions in the wake of the deadly Parkland shooting, have provided the template for advocacy groups eager to co-opt the public schools for progressive activism.
“If they get away with this, they’ll be free to engage in any kind of political activity in the schools that they wish,” said Mr. Cleveland, who has a third-grader in the Chicago Public Schools.
The party is moving to avert that scenario by preparing a lawsuit against the school system, arguing that the district violated state and federal law as well as its own policies by organizing a political demonstration — and pressuring students to attend — on the taxpayers’ dime.
The district has yet to comment, but it has other problems. About 60 students from Simeon Career Academy trashed a Walmart “while they were supposed to be protesting guns,” an incident under investigation by police, according to Fox32 in Chicago.
The school system issued a statement saying it was reviewing the incident, but Mr. Cleveland said he has yet to receive a response to a letter from the party’s attorney demanding “that they comply with the law.”
“There will always be a few kids who don’t behave,” said Mr. Cleveland. “I’m a lot more concerned about the behavior of the adults.”
He is not alone. Connecticut lawyer Deborah G. Stevenson said she has fielded calls from parents and others across the nation, including California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, after reports about her clash with the New Milford Public Schools.
She urged the district last week on behalf of several parents to cancel the high school walkout, arguing that the schools had “condoned, facilitated, and supported an event that clearly advocates for students to be part of a partisan political ‘movement,’” but the district refused.
Ms. Stevenson said her clients plan to pursue further action before the April 20 walkout.
“Parents are very, very upset about this entire situation,” said Ms. Stevenson. “The ones that have contacted us are trying to determine what the proper legal steps would be here. Everybody’s trying to make that determination of how and when and where to take the next step.”
While the schools may pay a price for the activism, gun control groups are basking in the glow of the walkout, which drew as many as 1 million students and enjoyed widespread press coverage as Democratic luminaries turned out to cheer on the youthful crowds.
School officials have countered that walkouts were student-led, despite coordination by the Women’s March youth arm and Action Network, and that it was better to use the event as a learning opportunity rather than watch young people flee the classroom unsupervised.
New Milford Public Schools attorney Michael P. McKeon took umbrage at Ms. Stevenson’s claim that the school had engaged in politically motivated behavior, insisting that the events at New Milford High School were voluntary and student-driven.
“I am sure that your clients do not consider the murder of students in their schools’ hallways to be political expression,” Mr. McKeon said in a March 14 letter. “Similarly, students expressing a desire to be free from the threat of carnage and death in their classrooms can hardly be deemed political speech.”
He described the event as a “student-initiated remembrance” of the 17 people killed last month at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, and indeed many schools billed the walkout as a memorial.
In some cases, that was true. In other cases, the memorials looked more like rallies, stoked by school staff and teachers acting as escorts to events and providing class time for making posters featuring anti-gun slogans.
“I wouldn’t say that every individual school district was partisan, but far and wide, it was more than just a memorial service,” said Ms. Stevenson. “It was a protest with signs, with taking positions, with leading students to do things, to take action, selling T-shirts on school grounds — that’s something different than a simple memorial trying to remember those who died.”
Some school officials took a light touch on penalties in support of what was described as a good cause, including Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, who assured students the day before the walkout that “We will not enact any disciplinary measures.”
“We think it’s critically important that the student voice is heard at this crucial point in our history as a nation, so we’ve provided a lot of guidance to our school leaders, instructed them on how these things should be conducted, and we’ve also given them the autonomy to create the best plan at their local schools,” she said in a Chicago Sun-Times video.
James Buchal, head of the Multnomah County Republican Party in Oregon, said Portland Public Schools parents were “falsely assured that the protest was not partisan, but would constitute a memorial for those slain.”
“At the protests, adult participants bragged about organizing the protest, and applauded the help they had received from PPS,” Mr. Buchal said in a Tuesday statement. “Organizers made materials available to support Leftist goals far beyond anti-Second Amendment advocacy.”
In a statement, Portland Public Schools said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero asked schools to “treat the day as a ‘teachable moment’” and “structure lesson plans around the theme of safe, supportive and inclusive schools.”
Other Republicans who have decried the walkouts include South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who accused organizers of using children as a tool to further their agenda, and former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who said he was shocked by the “open partisanship of classroom teachers promoting walkouts.”
“School administrators, too, participated in the charade,” Mr. Tancredo said in a Tuesday op-ed in Colorado Politics. “How else to explain the large number of school buses providing taxpayer-funded transportation to partisan rallies off the campus?”
Some districts are also feeling the heat over their approach to student security. Mr. Buchal said Portland parents were so concerned about youths pouring into the streets that they “made multiple requests for police backup to protect students during the event.”
The Portland school district said students were not permitted to leave school grounds and those who did were told they would receive unexcused absences.
In New London, Connecticut, a brouhaha erupted after Harbor Elementary School kindergartners were led outside on an impromptu “school safety” walkout without written parental permission, prompting a board of education member to call for the principal to resign.
Those safety fears were justified in Minneapolis, where a student waving a “Trump” flag was assaulted outside Southwest High School by eight other students. Fox News reported that he was taken to urgent care afterward for injuries to his arm.
At least one school organization anticipated the potential for education to spill into advocacy.
The National School Boards Association issued in February a guidance, “Navigating Student Walkouts & Mass Protests,” that urged school districts to tell staff to avoid political posturing and viewpoint discrimination.
“Communicate state law and local policies that may restrict public employee political expression while on duty, as well as any specific district directives that have been issued regarding the present controversy,” said the association.
As far as Ms. Stevenson is concerned, the schools fell short, and she wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again in April.
“Right now, we’ve gotten a lot of support from across the country, so we’re trying to assess and coordinate and determine what our next move is, but we’re not going to let it go,” she said. “Absolutely not.”