By MATTHEW KRISTOFFERSEN
“It can hardly be argued,” Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas explained, “that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
But what about when students leave the schoolhouse gate? More specifically, when students across America and Redlands walk out of their classrooms for 17 minutes on March 14 in support of the Parkland shooting victims, will their constitutional right to free speech remain?
Answer: yes—with exceptions.
To begin with, schools—and those within them—are not the bastions of free discourse that Aristotle and Sophocles might have hoped. According to the oft-quoted ruling in landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, students have a right to protest and to voice their opinions as long as it does not “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Alternatively, in the case of Morse v. Frederick, as long as a poster saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” is not close to school grounds.
Even though organizers of the March 14 walkout do not plan on rolling out provocative posters onto school campuses nationwide, students’ rights to free speech can still be limited by school officials. Though not as overt as suspending students, teachers can assign tests or quizzes during the time of the walkout, and school districts have the power to label participants as truants and punish them as such. But for Redlands East Valley principal Jennifer Murillo, the opportunity to learn from the walkout is much more valuable than punishing students for leaving school.
“It’s never our intent to block or prevent a student from leaving campus or participating in some sort of protest or walkout or march,” says Murillo, “but it would be our priority to make sure that kids are safe. At the end of the day, if we can learn something from these experiences and if we can learn something that’s going to make REV better or is going to make every student’s experience here at school better as a result of it, that’s the goal. I want to focus on what we can learn from it, not how kids are going to get penalized—that’s not the point of it. The point is, ‘what statement are you trying to make and how are you going to try to make things better?’”
In essence, while students who participate will not face behavioral consequences, they will still be responsible for any and all work missed during the 17 minutes of absence.
“One of the things we’ve expressed to teachers is that students are responsible for whatever they have missed. If teachers suddenly assign a pop quiz at that time, the students who have walked out will be accountable and responsible to make that up. They have to be given the opportunity to make it up, but they won’t be penalized,” Murillo stated.
Principal Murillo explained, “I would hope that people would use this opportunity to reach out to those on campus that don’t have a place or don’t seem to fit in. We all know that we can walk through campus and see all of those people who are sitting alone. If we can use this as a chance for the student body to reach out to those people or help people realize that they do have a place here, that they do count and they are important, that’s how you as a school would honor the victims and the people who have suffered with the loss of their life. So often you hear about kids and the troubled past that they have or things that have happened in their life and if we can be proactive and if we can make everybody feel that this is their home and this is their safe place, I think that would be a positive thing to come out of it.”
Redlands Unified School District superintendent Mauricio Arellano agrees. “Our principals and staff are prepared to provide a safe environment for students,” he says. “Staff has been asked to ensure that if conversations and/or debates occur amongst the students, that they facilitate, model and ensure it is done in a respectful manner and it does not disrupt the school climate.”
Arellano continues. “In the curriculum of our history books we have read about the different components of our democracy and we learned many lessons about civics and government. This is an opportunity for students and staff to create a learning opportunity and learning experience.”
Whether or not students choose to participate in the walkout, the school district is prepared to make the event a safe, inclusive environment through which to share ideas. Students can rest assured that their efforts to honor the lives lost in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February will not be hindered by district personnel.
“In summary,” says Arellano, “our goal for Wednesday is to ensure students and staff safely continue with the rich educational program scheduled for students on that day all across the district and certainly to take a moment and think of the families, friends and educators who were affected in such a terrible manner.”