As schools around the country brace for student walkouts following the deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, principals and superintendents are scrambling to perform a delicate balancing act: how to let thousands of students exercise their First Amendment rights while not disrupting school and not pulling administrators into the raging debate over gun control.
Some have taken a hard line, promising to suspend students who walk out, while others are using a softer approach, working with students to set up places where they can remember the victims of the Florida shooting and express their views about school safety and gun control.
The first large-scale, coordinated national demonstration is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday, when organizers of the Women's March called for a 17-minute walkout -- with one minute for each of the 17 students and staff members killed in Florida. Many organizers and participants are using the #enough hashtag.
Amanya Page, a student member of the Prince George's County School Board and a junior at Parkdale High School, worked to ensure students at her school and others in the county could participate.
"A lot of people underestimate the student voice," Page said. "There’s something that needs to be done if somebody can come into a school with a machine gun and just start shooting randomly.”
Dr. Ronald Hollis, an assistant principal at Parkdale, told News4 he believes the walkout is a positive way for students to express their views.
"They're learning how to speak out in constructive ways," he said. "Not destroying anything."
Here's how school districts in the D.C. area say they are preparing for potential walkouts, and what consequences students may face for participating.
DC Public Schools: D.C. is encouraging families to discuss with their children any plans for the children to walkout. "If your child plans to participate, please notify us using the normal attendance procedures. For high school and middle school students: If your child leaves class, it will be counted as an absence. To have this count as an excused absence for your child, please provide a note and ensure your student is back in class by 10:30 a.m. Otherwise, the absence will count as an unexcused absence," a letter to families said.
Alexandria City Public Schools: "ACPS is committed to providing an inclusive, safe, caring and challenging learning environment for all students. In anticipation of potential student walkouts at our middle and high schools on March 14, we want to inform you of how we will ensure the continuity of classroom instruction for those who remain in class and the student safety for those who choose to participate," a letter to parents said. Schools have designated supervised assembly points.
Arlington County Public Schools: "Our secondary schools will support students’ participation in a brief national walkout on March 14, to allow them this one additional time to convey their feelings on school property and without greatly disrupting the school day," a letter to families said. "Students who participate will not be penalized for taking part in their school’s brief demonstration, and we will work to ensure that any students who are not interested in participating will not be pressured to do so."
Charles County Public Schools: If middle school or high school students choose to walk out of school, there will be a designated, supervised area for them to assemble, Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said in a letter to parents. They then will be expected to return to their classes. "Students who choose to walk out of their classes will not be permitted to make up any work that they miss," the letter said. This week, the school district launched a "see something, say something" campaign to urge students to report anything unusual to an adult.
Fairfax County Public Schools: "Principals have been directed to work with students to find safe opportunities to facilitate the observance by students who choose to do so, while minimizing the disruption to the instructional day," a district spokesman said.
Loudoun County Public Schools: School officials hope students will opt for alternatives to walkouts, like walking around the school track and making T-shirts. Students who do walk out can expect to get detention.
Montgomery County Public Schools: The district is working with students to provide "on-property alternatives" to walkouts, including letter writing, moments of silence and dialogue sessions. Students will receive an unexcused absence for leaving school property without permission," a district spokesman said.
Prince George's County Public Schools: The district supports "the spirit" of the National School Walkout, schools CEO Kevin Maxwell said in a letter. Staff members are asked to give students outlets for expression on school grounds. "Leaving school grounds unaccompanied presents significant risks to student safety," the letter said. "Please follow normal attendance procedures; any student absent after the walkout will be considered unexcused."
Prince William County Schools: Students can "hold group protests/walk-outs on school grounds, in a safe area designated by the principal. They won’t be marked absent or tardy as long as demonstrations don’t exceed 30 minutes, or another reasonable time period established by the principal," a letter to families said.
Stafford County Public Schools: Principals are talking with student leadership teams about potential walkouts. "Each school will establish a safe place for students to gather within the school building. SCPS does not condone students exiting the building, due to a significant safety risk, especially in light of the specificity of time and date of the 'Walk-Out,'" a letter to parents said. School officials are encouraging sit-ins in lieu of walkouts. "Schools may choose to provide an opportunity for writing during this time, for students who wish to advocate for their perspective in a written format," the letter to parents said. Students are asked to return to their classrooms. "Principals will enforce the Code of Conduct for non-compliant behavior," the letter said.