WASHINGTON — Students across the country are expected to walk out of their classrooms Wednesday morning to protest gun violence.
The national school walkout is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. in every time zone and last for 17 minutes — a minute for each life lost in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
Schools can punish students for taking part in the walkout, but many won’t as long as the students aren’t being disruptive.
Students have a First Amendment right to protest, just like anybody else. The landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case pretty much settled that legal question.
In it, the Supreme Court ruled students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Some schools could hit students who walk out with an unexcused absence. That could be a bigger problem if a student already has a lot of those and the extra one results in him or her being considered truant.
If the walkout turns disruptive, schools can stop students from participating.
They can also take some punitive measures. But they can’t punish students just because the district doesn’t like the brand of politics that powers the protests.
Generally, students don’t have to worry about being arrested — unless they start breaking laws, like blocking a street while protesting.
Some districts are telling students they have to write a letter or essay on the topic of, say, gun reform or civil disobedience in order to participate.
That’s OK. Schools can assign work to students, said Ben Wizner with the ACLU — and students don’t have a constitutional right to not do work.
“It seems to be a sensible way for the school to teach students” lessons on civics and citizenship, he said.
Teachers can schedule a test during the walkout. If the test was already scheduled and is part of the curriculum, that’s fine.
But if the test’s sole purpose is to keep students from walking out, that’s more of problem.
In that case, students don’t have a lot of recourse because schools generally have the discretion to schedule tests when they want to.
Wizner called such practices “a vindictive exercise” that wastes an opportunity for teachers to teach students “how to be an adult in this world.”
Instead, schools should offer students who miss a walkout-related test a chance to take it at another time, said Christine Hamiel, an attorney in Milwaukee, or offer them an alternative assignment.
Several colleges, including those in Colorado, have come out and told prospective students that unexcused absences or other consequences resulting from the walkout won’t affect their admission into the schools.
But there’s no guarantee other schools won’t take a different tact. If a college does hold participation in the walkout against an applicant, there’s not much a student can do — except maybe apply to another school.
It’s OK for parents to take their children out of school for the time period of the walkout or for the entire school day, if they so wish, experts said.
The motivations might be different. Some parents will sign their children out to take part in the walkout, while others will take them out to get them away from it.
Students also don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they step off campus, and schools can’t force students to stay on campus during the walkout.
But schools hope they do because of safety concerns. Once students leave campus, the school doesn’t have control of the situation anymore.
Wizner urges students to check on school policies before making such a move because “schools might have difference policies for missing class versus leaving school property without permission.”
Wizner and Hamiel said as far as the walkout is concerned, noncitizen students are viewed as having the same rights as the citizen students they are protesting with — as least while the walkout or protest stays on campus.
“They have the same rights, but where they should be cautious is in participating in off-campus stuff,” Wizner said.
“Not only would they have to deal with criminal law (if something happened during the protest off-campus) but they might have to deal with immigration law as well.”
Meaning, if they’re undocumented, they could possibly draw attention from federal immigration agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Students who don’t want to join the walkout — because they don’t agree with the cause, just don’t want their school day interrupted or whatever — shouldn’t be punished or retaliated against in anyway.
“This is not a legal question,” Wizner said. “But all students should have the right to remain in a safe school environment.”
Schools need to make sure students understand they’re under no obligation to participate in the walkouts.
“Schools should be proactive ensuring that students know … that if you don’t want to participate that you’re not required to do so,” Hamiel said.
On the day of the walkout, school leaders need to make sure their priority is on teaching.
Most schools have policies that allow teachers to take part in political causes, but on their own time and not when they are working for their school district.
Schools have a right to require teachers to teach during school hours, Wizner said, and “teachers would have a very limited First Amendment right to participate in a walkout during school hours for a political cause.”
But schools might want teachers out with their students during the protests.
“Some districts will say to teachers, ‘we want you to supervise the students,'” Hamiel said. “So some teachers will accompany students” during the walkout for safety.