A Somerville High School student holds a sign at a recent rally for stricter gun laws.

Credit: Bianca Vázquez Toness/WGBH News

Schools Struggle To Handle Student-Led Protests

March 9, 2018

When some 300 Somerville High School students walked out of school last month to rally for stricter gun laws, school officials seemed to publicly celebrate the students’ activism.

“I am incredibly proud of our students’ advocacy, and the leadership that they’re taking to demand change on an issue that is impacting communities across the country,” Superintendent Mary Skipper wrote in a prepared statement. “We have no intention of ‘punishing’ students for their civic engagement.”

However, when the student organizers announced their intentions to walk out of school again the next week, officials contacted parents.

“Students cannot continue to lose time on learning,” Somerville High School Interim Headmaster Sebastian LaGambina wrote to parents. “We hope that you will support us and encourage your student to stay in school.”

There’s no handbook or state guidelines for dealing with students walking off campus in protest. School officials are having to make it up as they go along. Districts are struggling to balance the need to protect students’ safety while assuring their right to free speech.

Then there‘s class. Teachers have planned lessons and these students are missing them.

Inconvenient for Everyone

“We don't like missing that much learning time either,” said Somerville sophomore Jack Torres. “It's inconvenient for us. It's inconvenient for our teachers, and it's inconvenient for our parents. So, they should get that bill passed and we'll stop walking out.”

Torres and his classmates are focusing on passing so-called “red flag” bills at the Massachusetts State House. Bills H.3610 and H.3081 would help people temporarily disarm family members they consider an “extreme threat” to others or to themselves.

During walkouts, students have written letters and called State House members urging them to pass one of these bills. Torres says he’ll continue to walk out until the bill is passed or the deadline for passing it expires at the end of April. He gets an unexcused absence for each day he misses for a walkout.

Somerville’s movement is catching on. Students here have communicated with friends in neighboring districts who’ve then used social media to mobilize hundreds of classmates.

Managing Disruption

In Medford, that energized students who were frustrated that school officials at the high school were trying to minimize the disruption of their planned walkout on March 14.

“It was condoned by the school in a way that I think to a lot of people felt condescending,” said Medford High School senior Matt Carroll. “We wanted something that made it really show that it was the students that were leading the ship.”

“We don't like missing that much learning time either. It's inconvenient for us. It's inconvenient for our teachers, and it's inconvenient for our parents. So, they should get that bill passed and we'll stop walking out,” said Somerville sophomore Jack Torres.
Photo Credit: Bianca Vázquez Toness/WGBH News

Carroll and hundreds of Medford students walked out a week earlier than originally planned. Some of the students walked nearly four miles in the rain to join students who walked out from Somerville and Cambridge. Together, they called local lawmakers.

“That’s very challenging for us,” said Medford High School Headmaster John Perella about the students leaving campus for much of the day.

Perella said that as a former history teacher, he applauds their desire to protest. But as the headmaster, he doesn’t know what the consequences should be for students leaving campus for a political cause.

“We don’t know where those students went. We don’t know what happened to them. We can’t ensure their safety,” he said. “So, that’s really been a challenge for us to sort of navigate. How do we react to that?”

This question may come up for more school officials this week. Many students and schools plan to participate in a national walkout to mark one month since the shootings in Parkland, Florida. As many districts try to manage student protests, they may be surprised if students resist and organize their own walkouts.

Our coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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