The Indiana School Boards Association legal counsel has issued a memo to school districts advising them how to respond to possible student walkouts honoring victims of mass school shootings, including last month’s tragedy in Parkland, Florida.
National organizations are encouraging students to walk out of school March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland school shooting and April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting.
In response to the national movement, the Vigo County School Corp. has “a very detailed plan in place,” which was developed after consulting with student leaders and others, according to Superintendent Danny Tanoos. Before discussing details, he wanted to notify parents first.
The ISBA memorandum examines the legal issues for districts to consider when addressing potential walkouts.
In a summary, the memo states: “School corporations should begin determining how the walkouts will be handled locally and whether or not alternatives to walkouts will be made available. Whatever school officials decide to do, the decision should be communicated to students and parents as well as the details of how local policies and procedures on discipline and attendance will be applied.” The memo was written by Julie Slavens, ISBA staff attorney.
Lisa Tanselle, also an ISBA attorney, said in an interview, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1969 decision of Tinker v. Des Moines School District that schools “can regulate speech that is disruptive. … A school corporation can take the position that leaving a classroom without permission of the teacher is disruptive.”
As a result, “Local policy and procedures on absences, tardies, and truancies can be applied in these situations,” the memo says.
The Tinker case held that students do not shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate, and students cannot be disciplined for engaging in free speech during school, “unless such conduct is disruptive to the school environment or there is a substantiated foreseeability on the part of school administration of harm or disruption,” the memo says.
ISBA emphasizes that districts communicate to students and parents how they are going to handle walkouts and to provide alternatives, Tanselle said. As part of that communication, districts should spell out how the absences from class or school will be a handled.
The memo indicates that whether or not permission is given for the students to leave the classroom or school, school administration should also plan for students to participate in the walkout.
“Rather than the students walking out of the building where [their] safety is of heightened concern, perhaps the school administrators can provide a time and place for students to go inside of the building, i.e., gym, auditorium, for a discussion of their concerns and issues,” the memo says.
“Keep in mind, the school administrators must be neutral in supporting student opinions. School administrators will have to provide opportunities for all viewpoints to be heard. This may take place in the same assembly or a separate assembly may need to be made available for other viewpoints.”
Also, the memo says, unlike students, federal courts have ruled teachers and other school employees are not protected by the Free Speech clause while they are on duty and working for the public school. “Courts have considered these employees as public officials and concluded they are subject to the same neutrality requirements as school officials.”
The memo continues, “Teachers and other employees may not participate in the walkouts, encourage or discourage students’ participation and voice their own opinion about the walkout or related issues while working for the school corporation. Teachers and other employees are required to continue to do their job as assigned by the school administration.”
At North Central Parke Community School Corp., “The subject has not come up at our schools so we currently do not anticipate any issue with it. If the subject does come up, we will direct the students in a more discussion-type reaction rather than a walk-out for a few minutes that will serve little purpose,” said Superintendent tom Rohr.
Jeff Fritz, Clay Community schools superintendent, said he will meet with his administrative team today to develop plans.
Dave Chapman, South Vermillion School Corp. superintendent, said he has forwarded the ISBA memo, as well as information from other sources, to principals. “At this point, there has been no indications of any form of protest/walkouts.”