Schools vary on han­dling of kids’ gun-vi­o­lence walkouts

Ed­u­ca­tors ask: How young is too young to join protest?

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Stephanie Saul and Anemona Har­to­col­lis

It started out last month as a writ­ing ex­er­cise on the 1963 Birm­ing­ham Chil­dren’s Cru­sade, when more than 1,000 stu­dents skipped school and marched to de­mand civil rights. Then the class as­sign­ment mush­roomed into a plan — hatched by 10- and 11-yearolds — to stage a lit­tle civil dis­obe­di­ence of their own.

So this morn­ing, the stu­dents in Craig Sampsell’s fifth­grade class at Case Ele­men­tary School in Akron, Ohio, will pick up posters they drew and walk out of their class­rooms, join­ing many thou­sands of other stu­dents in a na­tion­wide protest against gun vi­o­lence af­ter the killing of 17 peo­ple in a Florida high school last month.

Asked whether that was an ap­pro­pri­ate age to be protest­ing about a dis­turb­ing event, the prin­ci­pal, Dan­jile Hen­der­son, said: “My fifth-grade stu­dents were very aware of the de­tails of the events and wanted to have their own peace­ful protest.”

Still, she drew lines around who could par­tic­i­pate and how. Third- through fifth-graders may walk out; sec­ond-graders can ob­serve the protest but not walk; kinder­gart­ners and first-grade stu­dents will re­main in their class­rooms for dis­cus­sions on school safety in gen­eral that avoid the shoot­ing it­self. “Not all par­ents may want that de­tailed con­ver­sa­tion on what hap­pened in Florida,” Hen­der­son said.

With some par­ents want­ing their chil­dren to get first­hand ex­po­sure to a na­tion­wide po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tion, oth­ers wor­ried that the protests are stok­ing the fears of young chil­dren about a threat that re­mains un­com­mon, and still oth­ers ob­ject­ing to the gun-con­trol message en­tirely, one ques­tion has been weigh­ing heav­ily on school ad­min­is­tra­tors this past week: How young is too young for chil­dren to join the walk­out?

Many districts and schools that are tol­er­at­ing, if not en­cour­ag­ing, par­tic­i­pa­tion in what or­ga­niz­ers call the Na­tional School Walk­out are also cal­i­brat­ing their ap­proach for their youngest stu­dents. In New York City, mid­dle and high school stu­dents may walk out of class with ap­proval from a par­ent, such as with a per­mis­sion slip, but ele­men­tary school stu­dents can­not leave un­less a par­ent or guardian comes to check them out.

At Woods Cross Ele­men­tary School in Woods Cross, Utah, stu­dents will be al­lowed to leave class at 10 a.m. and go to the gym for 17 min­utes, the same start­ing time and du­ra­tion (one minute for ev­ery vic­tim in Park­land, Florida) as other walkouts around the coun­try. Par­ents may also check them out of the school dur­ing that time, and they will not be pe­nal­ized.

“We’re giv­ing them an op­por­tu­nity to ex­press their First Amend­ment rights in a safe place,” said Rachel Peter­son, a phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teacher at the school who is also safety com­mis­sioner for the state board of the Utah PTA.

In sub­ur­ban Nashville, David L. Snow­den, di­rec­tor of schools for the Franklin Spe­cial School District, sent an email to fam­i­lies say­ing that the district had de­cided that it would not be ap­pro­pri­ate for stu­dents in its ele­men­tary schools, which run through fourth grade, to par­tic­i­pate in the walk­out, but that stu­dents in grades five and up could join.

In an in­ter­view, Snow­den said he was not con­cerned that very young chil­dren would be fright­ened by the walk­out, only that they would not un­der­stand what it was about. “Some­times I think when you’re teach­ing chil­dren, es­pe­cially younger chil­dren, you try to take into con­sid­er­a­tion, will there be a full un­der­stand­ing of what they’re do­ing and why they’re do­ing it,” he said. “Just to walk out of class for 17 min­utes, I’m not sure what that is re­ally teach­ing.”


Fifth-graders Maeva Lile (left) and Ta­tiana McCruel make posters Mon­day for a walk­out against gun vi­o­lence at Case Ele­men­tary in Akron, Ohio.

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