Schools vary on handling of kids’ gun-violence walkouts
Educators ask: How young is too young to join protest?
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.