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Prince William students ‘won’t be marked absent or tardy as long as demonstrations don’t exceed 30 minutes’

Students are planning to walk out of class on March 14 and April 20, and in Prince William County that’s OK, says School Superintendent Dr. Steven Walts.

He issued this letter Thursday:

March 8, 2018

Dear PWCS Parents and Students:

The nationally promoted March 14 and April 20 student demonstrations associated with school gun violence are approaching fast. Large numbers of PWCS high school and middle school students say they plan to join in student-organized demonstrations representing their own, varied points of view. As promised, and encouraged by the Virginia Department of Education, I’ve worked with principals and other administrators to develop a plan to enable our students to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and demonstration, in safe and non-disruptive ways, without fear of disciplinary consequences.

To that end, our plans require some advance coordination between students, staff, and principals to establish some common-sense guidelines to ensure safety, allow all interested students to voice diverse points of view, and minimize disruption of the schools’ educational environments. Under those guidelines students can:

  • Hold group protests/walk-outs on school grounds, in a safe area designated by the principal. They won’t be marked absent or tardy as long as demonstrations don’t exceed 30 minutes, or another reasonable time period established by the principal;    
  • Wear clothing and other items expressing their views, provided they are not lewd, patently offensive, contain “fighting words” that are likely to incite violence, or are otherwise inappropriate in the school environment;
  • Speak, chant, sing, sit silently, or express themselves in any other non-disruptive ways;
  • Distribute flyers or post signs in places where schools normally allow that, and in the safe area designated for student gatherings, provided it doesn’t create safety hazards; and
  • Have confidence that teachers will avoid scheduling tests on these dates, and will allow students to make up assignments missed.  

Reliance on such easy-to-follow guidelines has already helped students to lead similar brief, successful observances, without difficulties.

Admittedly, the approach means observing some important rules that can’t be violated. They will keep students safe and assure that our schools are playing appropriate roles in the students’ public conversation.

I’m sure most people agree that we can’t let students leave school grounds without written permission from parents; after all, we’re responsible for their safety. Our only option is to impose disciplinary consequences for students who do so. We also have to restrict these events to only current students, in order to protect the safety of those participating in the demonstration. That means outsiders, including other protesters, outside organizers, media, parents, relatives, and community members can’t be allowed on site for demonstrations.

Some have said that schools shouldn’t be organizing student protests or directing their opinions;  I agree. PWCS is not sponsoring nor endorsing these protests. But given the anticipated impact of these nationwide demonstrations, PWCS will be doing its best to accommodate the First Amendment rights of PWCS students, while balancing the need to keep them safe and minimize disruption to school operations.

This is why our guidelines say that the only role that teachers and staff will play is to provide supervision. Staff will not be endorsing or participating in demonstrations occurring during the school day, though they have every right to express their own views when not acting on behalf of PWCS. We’re also expecting our students to respect one another’s opinions. Students who choose, or whose parents don’t want them to participate in events, won’t be pressured into taking part. Students who promote differing points of view will all have their chance to do so, with no fear of being shouted down. Civility is an important part of the pact we’re making with our students.

I’m counting on our students and administrators to make this all work, and I’m confident they can do it. Principals and middle and high school students will discuss how; elementary students will be subject to more age-appropriate limitations. PWCS will not be publicizing times or other details of any student-led demonstrations, and urge the students to follow this same safety precaution.

I ask you all for your understanding and support. School safety is an issue that touches every student. If there’s ever an appropriate topic around which to help students exercise their constitutional rights, it’s this one. No doubt students will offer different ideas for addressing safety issues, and they should. I urge parents to guide them in how they get involved, if at all.

This is a real learning opportunity for all concerned, and I look forward to helping them be part of a productive national conversation.

Sincerely,
Steve Walts

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