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Thousands of students are expected to walk out of their classrooms in the coming months to support a growing movement for tighter gun controls in the wake of the mass school shooting in Florida. But some will do so at risk of scarring their academic record as adminstrators in some district threaten them with suspension.
The threats of disciplinary action has prompted lawyers and even a prestigious university admissions department to lend their support.
The survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, have sparked a national debate over gun control laws, prompting students across the country to demonstrate in favor of stricter regulations.
There are national school walkouts scheduled for March 14 and April 20. A march on the nation's capitol is scheduled for March 24. Thousands of students also participated in walkouts across the country on Feb. 22.
But some schools districts want their students to stay put.
Spring Independent School District north of Houston, Texas, said in a statement that any student who walks out “could face an in-school suspension per our normal policies.”
The superintendent of the Needville Independent School District, southeast of Houston, also threatened to suspend students over walkouts.
“Should students choose to [walk out], they will be suspended from school for three days and face all the consequences that come along with an out-of-school suspension…We will discipline no matter if it is one, fifty or five hundred students involved,” according to post on the district's Facebook page, which is no longer up.
The Waukesha County School District in Wisconsin also said Wednesday that students were prohibited from participating in walkouts, though the superintendent did not specify what the punishment would be.
Thursday, however, the district issued another statement saying it would allow students excused from school by their parents to participate so long as they did not disturb other students.
Needville, Spring, and Waukesha school districts did not respond to requests for comment.
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But plans to protest can pose challenges for administrators caught between fulfilling their legal responsibilities and accommodating students' civic participation.
Bob Mosier, a spokesperson for Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, said administrators were in talks with student leaders to determine what shape the protests would take. Still, schools must supervise students during the day and keep them out of the danger, which can be challenging during a large protest, he added.
“Students need to be involved in this discussion, and what comes out of those conversations may be different at each school. What we can’t do is have activities that place students in unsupervised situations during the school day, or where you have a mass of students together outside,” Mosier said. “It makes for an unsafe situation if someone wishes to do some harm as they drive their truck down the road.”
Lawyers, meanwhile, have volunteered to support students in court if their school takes action against them.
New York City-based attorney Steven Golden tweeted Thursday: “I'm a Texas-barred attorney and will represent these students pro bono should they choose to exercise their rights to free speech.”
Golden vowed to defend any suspended student who reached out in any of the states where he is licensed to practice, which according to state bar databases, include in Texas, Maryland, and New York. Several people claiming to be lawyers replied to Golden saying they would do the same in their respective states.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also published a blog post, “Can schools discipline students for protesting?“
“The short answer? It depends on when, where, and how the students decide to express themselves,” the ACLU wrote.
The group advised students to “find out what policies govern discipline for absences in their state, school district, and their particular school so that they’re aware of the potential consequences.”
Schools cannot, the organization wrote, discipline students more harshly because of the content of their speech or punish them for speaking out in a way that does not disrupt the function of the school. The ACLU did not say whether it would represent students whose schools take action against them.
One university also weighed in on Thursday.
The admissions office of MIT said it would not count disciplinary actions related to the protests against students applying or already admitted to the university. Normally, students can be denied admission or have it rescinded for infractions that result in serious punishment, such as a suspension.
“We do not view such conduct on its face as inappropriate or inconsistent with their prior conduct, or anything we wouldn't applaud amongst our own students,” wrote Stu Schill, MIT's dean of admissions. “It will not negatively impact their admissions outcome.”