Students: Grosse Pointe North ‘watered down’ walkout

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A group of students at Grosse Pointe North High School is refusing to participate in the school’s walkout on Wednesday, saying it resembles a pep rally controlled by district administrators.

Grosse Pointe North High School

“On Our Own Terms” was the headline of a student-written editorial posted Monday on Twitter by 11 student journalists with North Pointe, the school newspaper. In the piece, students accuse the district of “pushing talking points” onto student organizers for the event, which was organized nationally to focus on demanding federal gun reform.

Students Lindsey Ramsdell and Abbey Cadieux, both seniors at the high school who work at the student newspaper, said Tuesday they are disappointed that the planning process and message has been taken out of student hands for the walkout at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the high school. The school has about 1,400 students.

“The students wanted to take this on as their own thing and as soon as administration watered it down, they felt as if they had lost this opportunity to be part of this movement,” Ramsdell, 18, a senior, said.

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.

The walkout, according to according to Women's March Youth EMPOWER organizers, is a call to Congress to “pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”

Cadieux said given the chance, she would talk about gun control and let students have the conversations. “Administration and student organization said this walkout is not a political activity tomorrow,” Cadieux said.

Ramsdell said she understands why the district felt like they had to take it over. “They want to keep students safe. If this is supposed to be a civics lesson, then students should lead it,” she said.

Gary Niehaus, superintendent of schools, said two student groups from the high school who met with school administrators came up with three areas to discuss during the walkout.

“To honor the victims of Parkland and rally against school violence and provide resources for kids for future safety. Those are themes from the students from when we sat down and asked them what we could agree upon,” Niehaus said.

Students decided, not adults, he said.

“I believe our student associations have worked hard with principals to organize a peaceful vigil-type protest,” he said.

As for the editorial published by the student journalists on Twitter, Niehaus said, “That’s an outlier who doesn’t agree with those three things. We’ve given those associations to chance to voice their dissent.”

Student Sophie Kehrig is one of the scheduled speakers at Wednesday’s walkout. She said the plan is for students to exit school at 10 a.m. and walk to the school’s football field, which is in the back of the campus with little to no access for the public to see the event.

Kehrig said students at the school are divided about whether to participate in the walkout. The 18-year-old senior said the event does feel school-sanctioned but she is still participating as a speaker.

“This issue is inherently political. Trying to wash around that is an attempt to subdue us. They know we want to do something. All these other students around the country are mobilizing. They are trying to nip it in the bud before it starts,” she 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.

Several school districts have made a point to say the walkouts are student-led and student-run events.

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.

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 true 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.”