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Plans for school shooting protests stir controversy

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

March 14 and April 20. Two days expected to draw students across the country out of their classrooms in response to school shootings.

The walkouts, which aim to honor the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Columbine High School massacres, are stirring some controversy and confusion at a local level.

Questions have come up about school district administrative support and on the juxtaposition of keeping students safe while not quashing their First Amendment rights.

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Raquel Reedy issued a letter addressing parents, students and staff about the walkouts.

“We want our students to feel like they have a voice, but we also want them to be safe and in school when they’re supposed to be. If we can come up with solutions that allow us to do both, we will all benefit,” she wrote.

The superintendent suggested students consider participating in actions outside of school hours and reiterated how APS respects the right of students to express themselves.

“We recognize that age-appropriate student activism is a part of the learning process,” she wrote.

Seventeen-minute walkouts – one minute for each victim at Marjory Stoneman Douglas – and various other forms of protest, including letter writing campaigns, are planned across APS on March 14. Another walkout is slated for April 20, which is the anniversary of the Columbine mass shooting.

Parent Doug Coombs, whose 14-year-old son attends Southwest Learning Centers and plays soccer at Eldorado High School, said the superintendent’s letter encourages students to protest, which he feels isn’t the district’s place.

“The title of the email ‘Helping Students Find Their Voice’ suggested to me that she views it as APS’ duty to help students engage in political protest,” he said in an email to the Journal.

Coombs fears encouragement will lead to “mindless activism” from students and take away from teaching time.

“It’s not about free speech; it’s about what they are doing on school time,” he told the Journal.

Coombs said the superintendent’s suggestions for rallies before and after school, at lunchtime or on the weekends still shows support.

“Helping kids hold protests at a more appropriate time than during class does nothing to address the fundamental issue that it isn’t APS’ place to get involved in political protests,” he wrote in his email.

La Cueva High School parent Tracey McClain thought the letter did well to address how students can express themselves without missing class and called the letter “great.”

“It really pointed out that students can have a voice without disrupting school,” she said.

McClain questioned how vocal students would be if they had to use time outside of the classroom for the walkouts.

Repercussions of walking out of class weren’t mentioned in Reedy’s letter.

But APS spokeswoman Johanna King told the Journal the district doesn’t plan to penalize those who walk out as long as the protests are safe, nondisruptive and worked out with school officials ahead of time.

“If they were to walk out of class for 17 minutes, as long as students aren’t in danger, we support them,” she said.

King equated the protests to a school field trip or school activity, saying if students become a “disruption to the educational process,” then discipline would ensue. She also said “each school will determine how they handle this.”

East Mountain High School, an APS charter school, is aligning with the no-discipline approach.

Principal Monique Siedschlag said East Mountain is “not planning on pursuing discipline,” and students will get a chance to make up any assignments missed during the walkout.

East Mountain junior Keely Doherty, 17, said the walkout is planned for 10 a.m. She is expecting about 75 kids to participate.

Doherty said she was surprised by the support school officials have shown.

“It’s been really amazing,” she said. “They’ve been super supportive.”

Doherty said the walkout is important because many kids don’t feel comfortable at school.

“They should feel at home when they come to school,” she said.

Some parents are questioning if APS teachers and staff should be a part of any political activism.

King said walkouts have to be student-led and can’t be organized by staff.

“While we shouldn’t lead student efforts, we certainly can guide and encourage them to think deeply about the issues,” Reedy wrote in her letter. “We also need to be supportive of students who don’t want to get involved, who may not wish to voice an opinion.”

Jessica Martinez, Atrisco Heritage Academy activities director, said teachers are to “remain neutral.” But she said it’s kind of a gray area on how teachers are supposed to respond during walkouts when students initiate them.

“I know that the district has encouraged principals that if there are staff members that would like to accompany kids as they walk out and the administration is all right with the staff walking out to help them remain safe, it’s my understanding there is no recourse,” she said.

King said there aren’t hard and fast rules teachers have to follow in terms of student-led walkouts and that it’s up to the schools.

“If students insist on walking out of school, staff may discuss safe locations or routes,”APS wrote to employees on the walkouts. “They also may voluntarily accompany them, though they are not obligated to do so. Student safety has to be our priority during these unsettled times.”

Martinez, who hadn’t heard of any plans for a walkout at Atrisco, said she is glad the district has been proactive and communicative about the planned walkouts.

Cristal Sandoval, a parent with children in three different APS schools, said communication has been unclear to her family about the walkouts. One of her sons wanted to participate, but he didn’t fully understand the rules and consequences.

“There has to be more conversations on it with parents and in the classroom,” she said.

Sandoval has had experience with walkouts before. Her son also participated in the walkout several years ago that protested PARCC testing, which she said she supported.

What isn’t gray is the stance of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.

President Ellen Bernstein said ATF supports the student-led marches.

“This is an incredible opportunity for teaching,” she said.

Her stance was reinforced by a resolution posted to ATF’s website Wednesday that says the teachers union will support the students.

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