Student walkouts planned for later this month are presenting tricky challenges to school administrators who don’t want to discourage student activists but are charged with enforcing school rules and overall safety.
Student organizers in several local districts, including Schenectady, Niskayuna, Saratoga Springs, Ballston Spa, Shenendehowa and Scotia-Glenville, have joined a national movement that involves widespread student walkouts and protests in the coming weeks and months, largely focused on forcing stricter gun laws.
School administrators, some of whom support the spirit of the protests and have themselves called for stricter gun laws, are wrestling with how to support students’ free speech rights while also providing security for protests and enforcing school policies that require students to attend classes.
“We aren’t condoning a walkout,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said after a recent school board meeting.
The New York State School Boards Association this week released guidance to districts, saying the possibility of mass student walkouts “certainly constitutes a material and substantial disruption” to school activities – the standard used to determine whether schools can restrict students’ free speech activities.
Student organizers, who have been cooperating and discussing walkout plans with school administrators, are still pressing for walkouts on March 14 and envision more demonstrations in the weeks that follow, including longer and more politically charged events on April 20 – the anniversary of the Columbine school shootings in Colorado that ushered in a new era of school safety and student fears.
Few, if any, of the emerging student activists were alive on April 20, 1999, when 12 students and one teacher were killed by two students in Columbine, forever changing school safety efforts. Today’s high school students have only ever known a world of lockouts and lockdowns and school shootings that draw national attention every few years or months.
“If you ask, people from a previous generation know where they were for 9/11 [attacks],” said Trevor Luciani, one of a group of students organizing a walk-out at Schenectady High School. “Personally for me, I remember exactly where I was the day of Sandy Hook [elementary school shooting].”
Pressure brought by students who survived the Parkland, Florida, school shooting has driven companies to drop ties with the NRA and led to decisions from Dick's Sporting Goods and Wal-Mart to stop selling military-style weapons and any guns to people younger than 21.
Students in local districts quickly followed the Florida students' lead, registering walk-out events for both March 14 and April 20 on national organizing websites last week.
This week, the realities of organizing the protests has run up against the logistics administrators face in managing school operations and ensuring student safety. School leaders have ramped up conversations with student organizers about what the events will look like and what, if any, support district officials will provide.
“We are definitely keeping the spirit [of the event] and being cognizant of the fact that a whole bunch of kids walking out of school -- that's going to make people nervous,” said Asma Bawla, who is organizing an event at Shaker High School. She said administrators had been cooperative, and that they are still hashing out details of where exactly students will protest.
North Colonie Superintendent Joseph Corr said students would not be disciplined for participating in the student-led event, but he also maintained distance from it.
“It’s clear the district is not in the position of endorsing a position,” he said. “We are working with our students, and we are working to ensure the safety and structure to participate.”
Administrators largely appear to be working with students to organize the initial wave of walkouts without explicitly supporting them. It wasn't clear to what extent talks with students would result in events that students feel fulfill their vision while still addressing administrative concerns. It was also unclear whether students would follow the initial wave of activism with future events and how administrators might respond to those.
The school boards association guidance cautions districts that students’ rights don’t cover actions that would cause a “material and substantial” disruption to school operations or other students and warns that if district officials endorse student protests of one kind, they will set a precedent that may be untenable in the long run.
Jackson Hengsterman, a Shenendehowa junior organizing a walk-out and public forum for April, said he was struck when reading a bio of one of the Parkland, Florida, victims about just how similar the two of them were. They had the same favorite artist. They both played basketball, had similar relationships and had the same taste in art and music.
“We were the same person in a lot of ways,” Hengsterman said. “It seemed like an eerie resemblance and made me connect more with the whole tragedy.”
The students organizing events in the region said they plan to carry the activism beyond March 14, already eyeing April 20 as another chance to turn attention to the issue burning at the heart of the protests: Students are afraid of getting killed in their schools.
“It is really rooted in fear; kids are coming to me and saying, 'I’m scared to go to school,'” Hengsterman said. A Google classroom page he set up to communicate information about the Shenendehowa event maxed out at 250 students in less than a day; 500 people have joined a Facebook page for the event.
“Our main message is going to be we want our schools to be safe,” he said. “In order to keep that fire burning, we need to do a lot in between (walkout dates) and have plans for after. I don’t want it to come and go.”
In Schenectady, student organizers are looking to get as many students as possible to join the March 14 walkouts, planning to gather on the football field or somewhere else in solidarity with the Parkland students. Superintendent Larry Spring has signaled district officials won’t limit the organizing efforts.
At Wednesday’s school board meetings, at which board members discussed the walkouts and expressed a desire to support and trust students, board President John Foley said he was impressed by the student-led efforts.
“One of the parts of this is, as adults, we haven’t gotten it right for a long time,” he said of gun control and school safety.