CAPITAL REGION -- Students in the Mohonasen and Canajoharie school districts who walked out of school in protest Wednesday, despite disciplinary warnings, accepted their consequences Thursday, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for schools to cease punishing peaceful student protesters.
Separate groups of Mohonasen students – about seven students from both the middle school and the high school – joined a nationwide walkout movement, leaving class and their schools at 10 a.m. The small groups, who didn’t see each other from opposite ends of the Mohonasen campus in Rotterdam, gathered near their school entrances to honor the 17 students and staff killed last month in a Florida school.
The students had been warned by school leaders they would face consequences if they left the school building, consequences the students said they were prepared to accept. They received two-hour detentions.
“Seventeen students died in Florida,” said Hannah DeMarco, an 18-year-old Mohonasen senior. “I’m lucky to have a two-hour detention, and I think the walkout would have spoken louder than anything else the school offered us to do.”
Canajoharie High School students take part in Wednesday's school walkout. (Photo provided)
Students at Draper Middle School similarly disregarded the warnings of their principal and walked out of school, holding a small rally near the school’s front doors. Some middle-schoolers had been organizing the walkout for weeks. Jordan Bartlett, a 14-year-old eighth-grader and one of those organizers, said she had first prepared fliers about the walkout and handed them out to classmates but that they were confiscated by the principal. She then spent $50 of her birthday money to purchase personalized “Mohonasen School Walkout” buttons, but administrators stopped her from distributing those too, she said. After multiple meetings with her principal in recent weeks, Bartlett walked out on Wednesday morning, joined by a half-dozen classmates.
“I knew right then I would do the walkout no matter what they planned,” Bartlett said of a planning meeting with administrators pushing for an indoor event. “We wanted to show that enough is enough, and we aren’t going to stand by and let innocent kids be killed by guns anymore.”
“It was all about taking a stand and showing that right is right and we are not going to be silenced, and if we want to do this we have the right,” said 14-year-old Draper eighth-grader Hannah Armour.
Working with student representatives in the Student Senate, Mohonasen High School Principal Kevin Warren facilitated a memorial service and “speak out” at a large gathering space at the school for Wendesday. Early in the planning stages, administrators rejected the notion of letting students leave the school building as part of a sanctioned event, citing safety concerns. Hundreds of students at Schenectady, Niskayuna, Saratoga and other area districts walked out of their schools Wednesday as part of events that had earned tacit administrative support and were organized to address safety concerns.
“Personally, my view is when you have a national event that is broadcasting that students are going to walk out, it’s a major safety concern,” Warren said Thursday. “I didn’t feel that it was safe, and I didn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way or at risk.”
On Tuesday, Warren met with each of the school’s grades to explain how the sanctioned event would unfold and to tell students they would face consequences if they left school on Wednesday. As a handful of students walked out of school Wednesday, Warren reminded them one last time of the consequences; they said they knew and headed out the doors.
“I knew that all of us who walked out, the one thing we could agree on was that we need some kind of change in society and sitting around English class wouldn’t bring any change,” said 17-year-old senior Jourdyn Nicholson, who carried out her two-hour detention Thursday.
In Canajoharie, administrators also sanctioned an indoor memorial service, which was organized in conjunction with students. The event was organized to take place inside over safety concerns about students leaving the building. But some students wanted to protest with a true walkout, despite consequences.
“I felt that what people we’re doing inside wasn’t enough, and we wouldn’t be heard inside the school,” said Olive Nicolli, a 15-year-old Canajoharie freshman who joined other students in the walkout. “We need change and by letting the school shut out our voices that wouldn’t happen.”
The Canajoharie students who walked out also faced the prospect of detentions doled out Thursday, but some parents there felt the punishments had been unduly meted out before students were given a chance to explain why they chose to walk out of school. They cited a provision in the code of conduct that guarantees students a chance to “present their version of the relevant events.”
“He’s supposed to serve this detention today: no notice to parents, no opportunity for him to address the charge,” said Jessica Daniels, whose 18-year-old son Michael joined the Canajoharie walkout. “It’s upsetting, these kids are exercising their First Amendment and doing it in a peaceful, thoughtful way.”
Many of the students involved in the Canajoharie and Mohonasen walkouts said they plan to organize another walkout for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting and another day targeted for walkouts across the country.
“I knew that I was going to be punished with it and was 100 percent OK with that,” said DeMarco, a Mohonasen senior. “I’m definitely going to try to get a bigger crowd for the next one.”
Cuomo chimes in
In an open letter to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Thursday, Cuomo called on her to stop school officials from punihsing students who walked out of school Wednesday -- actions district officials have said constituted violations of codes of conduct.
"These [disciplinary] actions send a terrible message to New York's children and are against constitutional free speech protections," he wrote in the letter. "Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any efforts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students."
The governor's letter also appeared to cite a report from the Leader-Herald newspaper that Gloversville High School staff and local police blocked the school's exit to prevent students from leaving. The governor wrote that any effort by schools to block exits is "an egregious safety violation" and also unlawful.
Gloversville students on Thursday said they were notified by teachers on Wednesday morning they would face consequences if they walked out.
“While I fully support student’s First Amendment rights, the best way for us to ensure their safety was for students to remain inside the building,” Gloversville High School Principal Richard Demallie said in a released statement Thursday. The statement also said that “at no time yesterday was any student prevented from leaving the building, nor did any student indicate their intent to do so.”
Elia responded to the governor's letter with her own public statement, saying she "stands with" the governor "in support of New York's students who express themselves through free speech." She said her office would investigate any reports "where the safety of students was put in jeopardy."