Mich. schools try to ensure safety during walkouts

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Some will observe moments of silence. Others will host speakers addressing gun violence and school safety. At Fordson High School in Dearborn, students will arrange 17 flowers in a circle to honor those killed in last month’s mass shooting in Florida.

Students around Michigan are preparing to take a stand by walking out of class on Wednesday as part of a nationwide demonstration to honor victims of the Parkland school massacre.

The National School Walkout will begin at 10 a.m. and last 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, according to national organizers and local students.

Simon Diratzouyan, left, Eva Petkov and Julia Ketelhut plan a protest at the International Academy of Macomb. “I want to make sure this political issue doesn’t become a fad or something we forget about,” said Petkov.

The walkout effort, students say, is an opportunity to have their voices heard in a national conversation that often leaves them out. Their goal is to see meaningful changes in the laws to protect people from mass gun violence.

“I think that the amount of mass shootings in America is ridiculous. It’s a little terrifying to come to school every day and know (my school) could be shot up,” said Julia Ketelhut, a senior at the International Academy of Macomb, where students will speak about the impact of gun violence during their walkout. “People should be able to go school and feel safe.”

As a student at Fordson in Dearborn, Reem Abouzeid said a planned walkout there is also about engaging students who are refugees or immigrants who do not speak English or own cellphones, and who may be unaware of recent activism.

“Everyone deserves to know what is going on and to have a voice and a choice. A lot of people don’t believe students and young adults have a voice that matters. We do,” Abouzeid said.

Student walkouts are taking place in hundreds of locations across the country, according to a national school walkout page, which also includes organized protests for March 24 and April 20. The walkouts have come out of the groundswell of activism started by student survivors of the Parkland shooting and spread to students across the nation.

In Michigan, districts with student-organized walkouts include public school districts in Berkley, Dearborn, Novi and West Bloomfield Township.

School officials have been preparing since late last month. Several local superintendents say they have spoken with students and student organizations, obtained legal advice and consulted with law enforcement. Some districts have pledged not to discipline students for leaving class as long as no one is disruptive.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said school officials view their roles as simply to ensure the safety of students that day.

“We have heard a consistent theme from many superintendents that their districts are having an opening dialogue with students, the staff, the school board, the community and with law enforcement officials to ensure that whatever takes place on March 14 is carefully planned and organized to ensure student safety,” Wigent said.

Some districts addressed the issue head-on last week by sending emails to parents. Both Berkley and Dearborn schools said they do not plan to discipline students who walk out on Wednesday.

In an email to parents sent Thursday, Berkley School District superintendent Dennis McDavid said he encourages students to be actively engaged citizens.

“We applaud peaceful student activism and are proud that the conversation about school safety is being led by the students themselves. Through events, like this walkout, our students learn the skills they need to form, support and express their positions on issues,” McDavid said in the letter.

The walkout at Berkley is not school-led or school-sponsored, McDavid noted.

The district said it will have designated walkout locations at its high school and middle school. Staff will supervise students inside and out during the walkout, and a police presence will be at the buildings. Middle school students who want to participate must have a signed permission slip from a parent.

In the Dearborn Public Schools district, superintendent Glenn Maleyko said the shooting in Parkland has sparked a national conversation driven largely by students.

“The students have made it clear that they want their demonstration to be meaningful, and any student who isn’t willing to take this seriously should not take part. For those students who do not wish to take part, they will be able to remain in a supervised area of the school,” a statement from the district said.

Maleyko added: “Students will not be disciplined for taking part in the demonstrations as long as their actions remain peaceful and does not significantly disrupt the learning environment.”

Parents have had mixed reactions to the walkouts on social media, with some saying any protest should happen after school as to not interrupt instruction. Some have said they hope students are marked absent. Many other parents support the walkouts as a way for young people to drive change.

Berkley Schools parent Eliana Loomer said she supports her son’s right to walk out of Anderson Middle School. She is leaving the decision up to her sixth-grader.

“Whether you agree with the national school walkout or not, it’s very satisfying to know our superintendent, principals and staff are listening to students and always looking out for the well-being and safety of students,” Loomer said. “I also applaud them for allowing all sides to be heard and respected, as well as allowing the students to follow their own hearts and beliefs.”

Students’ legal rights to engage in protests at schools are supported by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 landmark decision in Tinker v. Des Moines that states students do not shed their constitutional rights “at the schoolhouse gate.”

According to the ACLU of Michigan, districts are still within their legal rights to discipline students over the walkouts.

Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU Michigan, said schools can punish students for missing class, but what they can’t do is punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message.

“Rather than seeking to silence students’ political engagement and quashing their desire for conversation, schools can approach this moment as an opportunity for learning about civic action and how laws are created,” Moss said.

Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said he supports students being engaged, but schools are government-run institutions that need to remain neutral on political issues.

“I don’t think it’s the schools’ role to support this at all,” Pondiscio said. “I would argue that if you aren’t enforcing disciplinary procedures, it’s de facto sanctioning.”

Student activism with school permission is not student activism, he argued.

“To make this authentic student engagement, students must be prepared to pay a price for this,” he said. “It’s part and parcel of activism. If you do it with school permission, it does blunt the message. When you look at any great movement, it’s not as if the Freedom Riders had permission slips.”

Student Eva Petkov said her main goal of Wednesday’s walkout is to bring attention to the need for banning bump fire stocks and enacting universal background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm. She is among several student speakers from the International Academy who will take the Chippewa Valley High School football field in peaceful protest.

“I’ve always been passionate about political issues and the safety of all Americans. I want to speak for those people who cannot speak now,” Petkov, 17, said of victims of past mass shootings. “I want to make sure this political issue doesn’t become a fad or something we forget about.”