The media has widely reported what appears to be a growing student protest movement centered around the tragic February 14, 2018, school shooting in Florida. These six tips aim to help South Dakota’s school boards and district leaders prepare for these activities in their schools and communities. Chief among our recommendations is that to the extent possible, school districts should plan ahead and engage your students, parents, and stakeholders.
Tip #1 - Keep students safe
As always, this is priority number one. You don’t want students walking onto busy streets and entering chaotic places during a protest. Most school districts have well-established guidelines that define the roles of school officials, the monitoring and reporting process, and the process for engaging law enforcement to assist in monitoring for student safety. As school leaders anticipate a student walkout, it’s wise to revisit these guidelines to make sure they are current.
Tip #2 - Recommend alternatives
As educators, you want students in school where you can keep them safe while facilitating their participation in the educational program. Convene your student leaders to discuss the purpose of the walkout and how students can achieve their goals in the safest and least disruptive ways. If the students are determined to proceed with a walkout, teachers and administrators should monitor the walkout and endeavor to create safe conditions as much as possible. If safety concerns are insurmountable, consider ways to accommodate the protest on school grounds.
Tip #3 - Clarify consequences
As a general rule, students should not be disciplined for engaging in the act of protest. However, make it clear to students that a walkout protest is an act of civil disobedience and, by definition, a violation of rules. Those infractions will be handled in the standard manner, typically as unexcused absence.
However, the penalty should be no greater than if a student left campus for the same period of time without permission for any other reason. By extension, administrators should consult policy and clarify the implications of a walkout with the school community in advance:
- What qualifies as a walkout? Leaving the building? Leaving school grounds?
- Can a student return to the school building after the walkout?
- Are students who walk out eligible to participate in after-school/evening athletic events?
- Can a parent call the student in sick to technically avoid an unexcused absence?
Tip #4 – Administrators, teachers, and other school officials should not participate in or endorse the protest
Most district policies on staff expression prohibit protest during the school day, regardless of how strongly the school official feels about the issue. Specifically in the case of a walkout, school officials’ participation sets a precedent for endorsing a flagrant violation of school or district policy. Also, students with differing views might feel alienated or compelled to participate against their will if school officials are perceived as supporting the protest. Teachers can, however, reduce the negative academic effects of the protest by, for instance, not assigning tests or work that cannot be made up if an absence is unexcused. More appropriately, teachers can provide opportunities for remaining students to have their voices heard as well by writing a letter to a legislator, leading a structured conversation about the topic of protest, and so forth.
Tip #5 – Manage media attention
Reporters are typically not permitted on school grounds without permission. Review your policy on press interaction with students on the perimeter of school grounds, where the walkout protest will likely take place. Where principals have the opportunity to address media as district policy allows, use the occasion to celebrate the school’s role in empowering students to lead their learning and amplify their voices on issues that matter to them.
Tip # 6 – Attend to the students who remain
As noted above, students with differing views might feel alienated or compelled to participate in a protest against their will if school officials are perceived as supporting the protest. Administrators should determine if the protest creates a hostile environment for these students or if the protest issue is so polarizing that a walkout further exacerbates tensions. In any case, work with teachers on strategies to discuss the walkout as the topic comes up in classes.