Suffolk students plan protest

Published 10:24 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Suffolk Public Schools says it will respect students’ rights to walk out of class next week to protest gun violence in schools.

Students across the country will plan to participate in the National School Walkout set for March 14. Women’s March Youth Empower is calling for students to walk out of school for 17 minutes at 10 a.m.

The movement was sparked by the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen students and teachers were killed by a gunman, which is the reason for the 17-minute walkout.

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Suffolk Public Schools is aware of the organized protest set for next week, and the school division has put a plan together to ensure the safety of the participating students.

“While Suffolk Public Schools is not endorsing any particular viewpoint, we respect students’ rights to express themselves and their desire to memorialize the lives that were lost at Parkland last month,” said spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw.

The walkout is to protest Congress’ inaction in response to the gun violence that occurs in schools. The protest is meant to demand Congress pass legislation for stricter gun regulations, according to Action Network’s website.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sent a letter to all of the superintendents in the state on March 2. The letter urges school divisions to be supportive of the students and to respect their First Amendment rights at school.

“From the ACLU of Virginia’s perspective, a public school should always seek to impose the fewest and narrowest restrictions on student expression possible given the special circumstances of the school environment,” according to the letter. “We strongly question whether being absent from class for a few minutes or even a day creates a substantial disturbance or disruption of school activities or infringes on the rights of other students.”

Suffolk plans to monitor the students as they walk out, and the division believes this will keep the school safe while the protest occurs.

“As educators, we also believe this is a teachable moment to show students who desire to engage civically how to do so in a safe and productive manner,” Bradshaw said. “Therefore, we are working closely with our student leaders and school administrators to ensure the safety of all students.

“Each school will designate a meeting location in advance and will have a plan in place for supervising students,” Bradshaw continued. “Students should follow safety precautions and return to class after the 17 minutes. If students are disruptive or leave campus, they will receive a consequence aligned with School Board policy.”

Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney released a letter for parents via the Peachjar e-flier system, and it was also posted on the division’s website.

The letter laid out guidelines for how the students can express their First Amendment rights for the protest.

Students must stay in designated areas, conduct themselves appropriately and return to class when directed, according to the letter.

The school division has laid out these expectations for both middle and high school students, but they addressed options for elementary school students.

“We realize some elementary students may also express an interest in participating. If this occurs, elementary schools will be directed to allow younger students to express themselves in a more age-appropriate manner,” according to the letter.