Legal Issues for National School Walkouts

By April 16, 2018 News No Comments

We continue to receive inquiries from clients regarding a planned “all day” walkout by high school students on April 20, 2018, in reaction to the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  Friday, April 20, 2018, is the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

Discipline for Walkouts and First Amendment Issues

The April 20 “all day” walkout stands in contrast to the 17-minute walkout that occurred on March 14, 2018, in which thousands of students from across the country participated.  Due to the length of the April 20 walkout and the rise of other walkouts, such as the “Second Amendment Day,” more Districts may opt to enforce their normal procedures for student absences if a student walks out on April 20, which may include, among other things, determining whether the absence should be excused or unexcused.

If discipline proves necessary for either students or staff on April 20, 2018, ensure that such discipline is consistent with past discipline for absenteeism, cutting classes, or other similar behavior. Disproportionate discipline could implicate First Amendment issues. Although you may not have imposed any consequences for the March 14, 2018, 17-minute walkout, you may do so in this case, because the walkout is scheduled for the entire day. Accordingly, imposing normal consequences for the April 20 walkout may discourage walkouts for those students who are not as committed.

Protecting Students and Minimizing Disruption

It is our understanding that students who will participate in the April 20, 2018, walkout plan to stay on school grounds.  Hence, the goal should be to protect students without causing a disruption to the school.  You may want to consider designating an area where students can safely gather – in a cafeteria, commons, or on athletic fields, for example, rather than in the streets. Also, develop a plan for supervising students. Consider the possibility that a large gathering of students may itself become a target for disruptive behavior by “outsiders” or the students themselves. As necessary, coordinate with local law enforcement to address concerns like crowd management, safety, and impact to the surrounding community. Be prepared for the possibility that large gatherings may draw media attention.

You might anticipate debate among your students, whether it occurs on the day of the walkout, during the planning stages, or in the days that follow. Nothing about the walkout changes underlying First Amendment principles, though the political nature of the event will push those boundaries more than usual, and emotions may run high.

Additionally, community members, parents, and “outsiders” may wish to attend, whether to support students, participate in the event, or to participate in the demonstration. Again, generally speaking, nothing about this event will require you to give special treatment to these visitors, but you may find yourself in situations that do not normally arise. Along those lines, and depending on the plans in your school, you may face issues concerning facility use and trespassing, complicated First Amendment issues, or anything in between. We recommend that the District make it clear that a demonstration or gathering on school premises is for students only, and again, you should coordinate with local law enforcement.

We also recommend discussing your plans with employee and student leaders. Any plan will be more effective if there is student and staff cooperation and buy-in. Ensure that your staff members have clear direction for responding to questions, concerns, or comments from students. You may also wish to coordinate with local elected officials, municipal representatives, law enforcement, and/or civic and community leaders.

As we know, these issues can unfold differently in various schools, districts, and communities. If handled successfully, your plan may become your guide for similar events in the future. We are always available to help you work through your specific concerns. We wish you all a successful day, whatever form that takes, and a safe conclusion to the remainder of the school year.

Should you have any questions about this issue, we encourage you to contact Stanley Eisenhammer, Rob Swain, Pamela Simaga, or Laura Boedeker.

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