When students said they would come out of their Iowa City schools to call for action on climate change, then-superintendent Stephen Murley didn’t panic or call on principals to lock the doors. .
Instead, the district coordinated with local police to block traffic at busy intersections along the planned route of the 2019 march. Some parents and administrators volunteered to walk alongside students, not to control them but to make sure they stay safe. And school leaders have drawn up a plan to communicate with parents about their response.
“Obviously we want kids in the classroom,” Murley, now superintendent of schools in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said in an interview this week. “If they’re not in class, we want to make sure what they’re doing is safe.”
When students go out to protest issues ranging from school policies to national political concerns, it can cause massive disruption and safety concerns for students, three administrators with experience in such situations told Education Week. But, handled well, protests can give students a chance to explore and understand their constitutional rights, voice their fears, and process powerful emotions.
The key is to create a culture of listening to students long before they decide to leave and when they leave the building, have plans in place to keep them safe. Educators must also be careful to remain impartial, regardless of the nature of student concerns, and to respect civil liberties in the process.
“We can be crazy about it, or we can listen to it and hopefully learn from it and grow from it,” said Kenny Rodrequez, principal of schools in Grandview, Missouri, who communicated with students before a protest in 2018.
Across the country, a wave of walkouts has tested educators in recent months, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more urgent to use in-person class time to help students stay on track academically.
Students left their classrooms to draw attention to various causes. In Douglas County, Colorado., Hundreds walked out Feb. 7 after the district school board voted to fire its superintendent. Oakland students came out on February 1 to protest the planned closure of schools following declining enrollment. Minnesota students came out on February 8 in response to the police killing of Amir Locke, a 22-year-old black man, while executing a no-knock warrant.
And across the country, students have both come out demanding stronger COVID-19 protocols in schools and to protest mask requirements.
There is no national data on student walkouts, but school administrators who spoke at Education Week said they have seen an increase in such protests since the mass youth protests. following the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The attack, which killed 17 people, quickly sparked the biggest wave of youth activism in recent history.
Students in rural towns and urban districts left their schools – and adults paid attention.
“I think it showed the students a lever that they hadn’t had access to before,” said Murley, the Green Bay superintendent.
School administrators sometimes coordinate with student organizers
The October 2019 Iowa City walkout ended in a rally march with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who had herself made global headlines by skipping school for “climate strikes” and was in town as part of a tour of the United States. But it was far from the first the district had seen. Previously, a group of middle school students in the liberal college town had repeatedly come out demanding changes in the school’s energy use.
Murley quickly learned that students were willing to share their plans in advance if they felt the headteachers were sticking to their plans. This gave adults time to coordinate with law enforcement and communicate with teachers.
“If kids know the building’s administrative team isn’t working to shut them down, they’re much more likely to share their intent,” he said. “Before it was ‘We have to hide this from the adults’. We don’t want anyone to know because if we do they will arrest it.
School walkout resources
Various educational organizations have created resources on student walkouts — well ahead of a nationwide protest against gun violence in 2018.
Administrators also worked with students in University City, Missouri, where teenagers rushed to coordinate a protest 48 hours after the 2017 acquittal of white police officer Jason Stockley in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a man 24-year-old black from St. Louis.
The area had seen massive protests following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, and students were still asking big questions about race and justice, Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley said.
But, because they knew the administrators respected their grief, the students approached them ahead of time, she said. With some feedback, they planned to leave school at the start of the day, stay on school grounds, and return to class after a 15-minute meeting that included a moment of silence.
“We just created the space for them to really express their emotions,” Hardin-Bartley said. “They were very angry. They were very hurt. And we just let them feel.
Create a Culture of Student Voice
Fostering trust and communication with students needs to be an ongoing effort, said Rodrequez, the Grandview superintendent, who worked with students who left during the gun violence protests in 2018. His biggest concern is this the day was that gun rights activists might counter-protest, so he coordinated with city police to avoid possible confrontations.
“I think the goal is that you need to prioritize student conversations before you get to that starting point,” he said.
This means administrators need to listen to student concerns, follow up to show the response, and create multiple avenues for feedback. When students asked for more mental health support, for example, Grandview leaders coordinated with outside agencies to provide services, and they met with students to share their plans. They also changed simple things, like ending a tradition of different colors of graduation gowns for boys and girls, after students complained.
Murley, the superintendent of Green Bay, said it was important to listen to students, but it was also important that educators not be seen as condoning their causes or favoring a political point of view over a another in response to walkouts. For example, he informs students that they will suffer the same consequences if they leave school to attend a demonstration as if they skip class to sit in the park on a sunny day. During the climate walkout, for example, students faced penalties for missed class work and absences.
Groups like the ACLU have made it clear that students have the right to protest under the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t punished.
“Because the law in most places requires students to attend school, schools can punish you for missing class,” the organization says in a guide for students.. “But what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature or the message behind your action.”
Educators should also let students know about any venues for sharing their concerns, including speaking up at school board and city council meetings, Murley said.
“I’ll be perfectly honest: it makes a lot of administrators very nervous,” he said. “’Are you going to encourage a child to go to the school board meeting? Are you bananas? You don’t know what they’re going to say.’… But I think what’s important for us to remember is that democracy is a messy process.
Make a plan in advance
Whether or not school administrators know that students are planning a protest, a district-wide plan can help prepare principals for anything if a protest does occur, district leaders said.
Various education groups developed sample plans and templates ahead of 2018 student protests across the country, drawing on input from school administrators. A Guide to the Council of Chief State School Officers recommended states and school districts identify a contact to handle legal and logistical issues and offer sample messages to send to families in case a protest becomes disruptive. A guide from the National Association of Secondary School Principals instructs headteachers on how to deal with students who are not participating and how to handle media attention. Civics groups offered a variety of lesson plans that teachers could use once students returned to class.
The school district in St. Paul, Minnesota, has a walkout plan that has evolved in recent years as students protest police killings of black men, including George Floyd, Philando Castile and Amir Locke, a source said. district spokesperson.
These guidelines direct principals to direct staff to passively monitor protesting students until they leave school. It also includes a sample letter to families that has been edited to include COVID-19 precautions.
Of course, it wouldn’t be practical for students to constantly go out, the superintendents pointed out, but it’s important to recognize their rights when they do.
“I think when you try to control young people when they’re very passionate about something, that’s not a healthy dynamic,” University City superintendent Hardin-Bartley said. “We want them to have a voice, and we also want to protect their learning time.”
“The in loco parentis thing may have encouraged us to do things with kids instead of kids,” said Murley, the Green Bay superintendent. “I think that’s starting to change, and it can be an uncomfortable process.”