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With more walkouts coming, discipline looms

With more walkouts coming, discipline looms

SED: No safety investigations after student walkouts
With more walkouts coming, discipline looms
Student take part in a walkout at Schenectady High School on March 14.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

CAPITAL REGION -- As student organizers turn their attention to plans for another day of walkouts on April 20, the Albany chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union plans to caution districts over punishing students.

Melanie Trimble, Capital Region chapter director for the NYCLU, said she plans to issue a letter to districts across the region calling on them to clearly communicate, ahead of protests, what the consequences of participating will be so students and parents can make informed decisions.

Trimble said Tuesday she planned to work on the letter this week and hoped to send it to districts in the Capital Region.

“We think they ought not be punishing any kids for free speech activity,” Trimble said in an interview last week.

But she also said it is incumbent on districts that choose to issue punishments to carry them out consistently and in accordance with codes of conduct.

“Make sure that the disciplinary action is transparent and that the parents have the information they need to guide their children in making their decision,” Trimble said.

For the March 14 walkouts, many district administrators worked with students on accommodating events in which students left class. But the walkouts next month may present administrators with trickier challenges, as students are looking to leave school in the morning and hold rallies for the rest of the school day.

Niskayuna school district students are planning to walk off campus for a gun control rally at Niskayuna Town Hall. Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. told students before March 14 that district officials would work with them on the March 14 event but wouldn’t condone or support further protests.

Organizers from Schalmont, Bethlehem and other area school districts are looking to get students from around the region to walk out of school and converge on West Capitol Park in Albany for a day of speeches and marches.

No investigations of previous discipline

State education officials have not investigated whether administrators put student safety at risk in responding to student walkouts on March 14, according to a state Education Department official Tuesday. The department received few complaints about how walkouts were handled and “none rose to the level of needing an investigation,” the official said.

On March 15, the day after the walkouts, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote a public letter to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia calling disciplinary actions against student protesters a “terrible message,” and asking Elia to use the department’s authority to “cease any disciplinary actions.” He also cited reports that, he said, raised safety concerns and asked Elia to investigate those incidents.

The education commissioner did not cease the disciplinary actions of districts, but she did promise to investigate any district actions that called into question student safety, uch as blocking exits to keep students from leaving schools.

Some area districts did discipline students for walking out in the March event, including a handful of Mohonasen school district students who were given detention after deciding to forego a sanctioned event indoors to go outside for their protests.

Audrey Armour, who along with her sister Emily walked out of school at Mohonasen High School, said after contesting their two-hour detentions, school administrators allowed her and her sister to swap out the detention for community service at City Mission.

The organizers of the April 20 national walkout suggest students discuss their walkout plans with administrators. They argue that students shouldn’t be disciplined for participating in the political demonstrations. A sample letter to administrators offers student organizers a way to approach school officials.

“We ask that students not be punished for taking part in the walkout, as it is a healthy and productive expression that should be encouraged,” states the sample letter. “The education value of actively participating in civic discourse must not be overlooked.”

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