Students across the country are planning “walkouts” in coming months to protest recent school shootings and a lack of historic response from lawmakers on gun reform.
But Beaufort County officials say the very reason students want to protest — to stop school shootings — is why they are discouraging “walkouts” and why they may reprimand students for taking part.
Allowing students to stand outside of school could lead to a dangerous situation if there was a school shooter, superintendent Jeff Moss said at Tuesday night’s Beaufort County Board of Education meeting.
“The idea of kids leaving school buildings is a definite safety concern,” district spokesman Jim Foster said.
Foster added that the district is considering alternatives to walkouts that allow students to “express themselves” without leaving school grounds.
On March 14 — the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Fla., shooting — students and teachers across the country are planning to walk out of school for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim.
The event will be followed by a March for our Lives walk in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to call for stricter gun legislation. A local march in Bluffton is planned for the same day.
Another “walkout” is planned for April 20 to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.
Beaufort County School District’s discouragement of the “walkouts” raised eyebrows from legal experts on whether the effort infringed on students’ rights to express themselves in that way.
Susan Dunn, legal director of American Civil Liberties Union South Carolina, called the sole reason of security concerns “somewhat bogus.”
She argued that same logic would apply to all situations in which students congregate outdoors.
“Does that mean they’re not going to have any more football games?” she asked. “So do they not play soccer? Do they not march in a Christmas parade?”
First Amendment Coalition executive director David Snyder suggested schools provide an alternative safe space for students to protest, such as a gym.
“We’re at this moment in which high school students are exercising their First Amendment rights in a way that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “(Schools should) help them exercise those rights on school grounds within the limits of the law. Students may learn much more about freedom of expression there than they might sitting in class.”
That’s exactly what Beaufort County principals will be discussing with students in the weeks leading up to the first “walkout” — finding a way for students to express themselves without leaving the school building and without disrupting the school day.
Districts nationwide are grappling with how to protect students’ safety while preserving their right to peacefully protest.
▪ A suburban Milwaukee school district said participating students “will be considered disruptive and could face disciplinary action,” according to an email Waukesha School District superintendent Todd Gray sent to parents that was obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
▪ Fresno Unified is urging students to “identify alternatives” to walking out of school, according to The Fresno Bee.
▪ Wichita School District’s student behavior policy prohibits “walkouts,” boycotts and other similar protests. The Wichita Eagle reported districts across southeast Kansas are having “conversations” on potential consequences.
Like any other school day, Beaufort County students who cut class on a scheduled “walkout” day without a parent note could face disciplinary action, according to the district’s Student Code of Conduct.
Teachers must take personal leave in order to participate, Foster said.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Moss and district protective services coordinator David Grissom outlined the general safety procedures already in place at schools:
▪ Each school holds at least one lockdown drill per school year.
▪ Teachers are annually trained by Grissom, in conjunction with law enforcement, on handling active shooter situations.
▪ A school resources officer (SRO) is stationed at each middle and high school. The SRO is a Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy who provides security and crime prevention services to the schools. At elementary schools, community resources officers rotate between the schools to provide security services.
▪ Grissom conducts “safety audits” at each school, disguising himself in jeans and a hat to see if staff lets him into the building and testing if teachers confront him for not having a security badge. Grissom then debriefs the school’s principal and assistant principals on what can be improved.
Board member Mary Cordray asked what safety training was offered to substitute teachers.
Moss said many conversations on additional training were taking place with Source4Teachers, a company contracted by the district to provide substitute staffing. He said he would add this topic to the list.