Upper Valley Schools Prepare for Planned Student Walkouts

  • Hanover High School students were addressed by local legislators before marching into downtown Hanover, N.H., Friday, March 9, 2018, raising their voices in favor of stronger gun control laws in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lebanon — School administrators throughout the Upper Valley are bracing for the local impact of a national student-led movement that encourages kids to walk out of school on Wednesday in response to the deadly Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Students in Windsor, Lebanon, Hanover, Randolph, Woodstock and Hartford are among those who plan to mark the date with some blend of political action and a period of silence to make their voices heard.

Administrators in some schools have actively supported the walkout as an important symbol of student engagement in the national civic process, while others are warning students that walking out of class without a parent’s note could lead to disciplinary action.

That’s the case for students at Randolph Union High School, according to Layne Millington, superintendent for the Orange Southwest School District.

“Students that do walk out, they will have some consequences to deal with,” Millington said, stressing that students have the option to get a note from their parents to participate without getting a “pink slip.”

Those who do get pink slips will have earned a visit to an administrator, who will decide on a punishment for having walked out of class without permission. Millington characterized it as a minor offense that might just merit a warning, depending on the individual student.

Millington said students there have, as at other schools, approached staff with the idea, and worked out a safe location outside of the building in which to gather.

Millington said the action is not meant to stifle student’s rights to engage, but to teach that sometimes, standing up for an ideal carries consequences.

“If you look at civil rights, people chose civil disobedience and they took their lumps, either standing in front of a judge or paying a fine,” Millington said. “Sometimes if it’s important enough that you have that feeling, you make that decision anyway.”

Young student organizers at different schools described being badly shaken by the Parkland shooting, where a 19-year-old former student triggered a fire alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as he opened fire on students and teachers with an AR-15 rifle he had legally purchased.

“When Sandy Hook happened I was in third grade, and I just remember being so scared. I was terrified to go to school the next day. I didn’t want to get out of the car,” said Hillary Mackall, a 14-year-old eighth-grade student who is helping to organize the walkout at Richmond Middle School.

Mackall said the Parkland shooting was just as impactful, but this time, she and her peers were harnessing their anger to empower themselves and effect positive change.

“Now is our time to use our voices that we have,” Mackall said.

And Lily Walker Money, a 16-year-old junior at Woodstock Union High School, said she and her classmates also were deeply frightened by the Parkland tragedy.

“I was in the airport traveling on a school trip to Nicaragua,” she said. “We saw it on the news and immediately, everyone changed. We were all devastated.”

Walker Money said that some Woodstock students refused to exit the building during a fire drill the following week, because they feared that going outside of the safety of the classroom was more dangerous than staying in.

“I really hope that our government in Vermont will really start taking steps forward and changing gun laws in Vermont, and then nationally,” said Walker Money, who advocated for raising the age limit for gun purchases. “Bringing attention to the issue and showing that our future generation really cares about this and we have to change it.”

Walker Money’s principal, Garon Smail, said the student reaction to the shooting has been different from their responses to other mass tragedies.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen this in my time at the school to say we want to engage thoughtfully in this national issue,” Smail said.

Smail said that when Woodstock students approached staff with the idea for the walkout, they worked out a mutually agreeable plan that kept the students in a safe place — gathered around a flagpole on the campus — while they expressed themselves.

State officials have joined a national discussion about what to do with students who announce they intend to orchestrate a walkout — with or without permission.

Vermont Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe recently released a memo in which she said “the right to free speech does not extend to disrupting classes (which prevents others from learning), nor to leaving school without permission (which potentially creates a safety threat).”

Holcombe encouraged schools to develop plans that balanced safety and the right to free speech, and various administrators sounded those themes when talking about what they expect.

Lebanon High School Principal Ian Smith said he wouldn’t be surprised if roughly 300 students there — about half the population — walked out at the appointed hour.

As at most other schools, Smith said student organizers had worked closely with staff to establish ground rules that would allow the students to participate without risking disciplinary action.

Smith said the school changed its weekly schedule to ensure that enough staff would be on hand to be with students both inside and outside of the building during the demonstration.

Smith also emphasized that the event was not specifically advocating for political action, but was to “demonstrate solidarity and support” for the Parkland victims.

And at Hartford High School, Principal Nelson Fogg said students there will have the option of participating or staying in class, without fear of disciplinary action.

Students will exit the building for a 17-minute period of silence, to commemorate the shooter’s 17 victims, and then will re-enter the building. They will not be leaving the campus.

While student organizers at other schools have openly advocated for stricter gun laws, Fogg said, Hartford student organizers “have chosen to keep this event apolitical.” The organizers have encouraged more politically minded students to take advantage of a bus that will be taking students from the high school to Montpelier on March 24 for a walk there.

The American Civil Liberties Union has thrown its weight behind the movement by publishing on its website protest guidelines and information about the rights of students to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Justin Campbell, principal at Hanover High School, has unique insight into the situation because that school’s students held their walkout early — on Friday, because school is not having its usual schedule this week.

“For well over 40 years, Hanover High School has called itself a democratic school and we try to live that,” Campbell said. Staff and Hanover Police were on hand to keep students safe as they walked down Lebanon Street to deliver an estimated 1,500 postcards to elected representatives, urging for a legislative fix.

“I don’t claim to have the answer for other schools,” Campbell said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Read more about Hanover students' walkout on Friday here.