Local schools participating in national walkout as lesson in democracy

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PORTLAND — Arguing it’s essential to allow students the opportunity to voice their opinion on safety while at school, nearly all local school districts are giving them permission to take part in the 17-minute National School Walkout scheduled for March 14.

“We are proud that our students are passionate about advocating for their beliefs,” said Xavier Botana, superintendent of the Portland Public Schools.

“They have a powerful voice that can effect change, and it is our role as educators to support them as they learn to apply democratic principles in action.”

The goal is not political, school superintendents from Cape Elizabeth to Brunswick said this week.

It’s more a lesson in democracy and also a chance for students to stand in solidarity over an issue that’s shadowed most of them their entire school careers, with mass shootings at schools becoming more and more common.

“I see this is an opportunity for students to have a voice on an issue that has national attention right now. I think it’s a lesson in democracy,” said Jeff Porter, superintendent of School Administrative District 51, which includes the towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth.

And Becky Foley, superintendent of Regional School Unit 5 in Freeport, said, “We are supporting the students’ right to have a voice on a national policy issue in a safe and structured environment.”

The walkout is being organized by the Youth EMPOWER arm of the Women’s March and the plan is for a rolling event taking place at 10 a.m. in each time zone across the country.

The idea is for the walkout to be 17 minutes long in recognition of the 17 lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, when a former student entered the school campus and opened fire.

“Students and staff have the right to teach and learn in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms or on their way home from school,” the Youth EMPOWER website states. “(P)arents have the right to send their kids to school in the mornings and see them home alive at the end of the day.”

Bottom line, the website says, “We are not safe at school.”

That’s why it’s imperative to call on Congress to “take meaningful action to keep us safe and pass federal gun reform legislation that address the public health crisis of gun violence. Join us in saying #ENOUGH.”

Most of the walkout activities at local school districts are being held at the high school level, where school leaders are allowing students to take the lead.

There will also be some limited opportunity for students in the lower grades to take part as “appropriate,” according to the various superintendents.

Stella Santucci, one of the student organizers for the walkout at Falmouth High School, said the event will be held to “honor the lives lost in mass shootings and protest Congress’ inaction.”

She said students, faculty and staff would gather outside the school by the flagpole at 10 a.m. on March 14 to hold a moment of silence and then listen to student speakers.

“Congress has taken little action to prevent mass shootings and we, as students, want schools to be safer for all students,” Santucci said.

While allowing the walkout to take place, local school districts are also doing what they can to ensure student safety during the event. Many are providing police protection and many are also sending letters home, with some also seeking parental permission for students to take part.

What’s most important, the superintendents agree, is for “students (to) choose to participate in the walkout, or not, without fear of stigma, and without fear of repercussions from the school in the form of disciplinary consequences,” said Heather Perry, the superintendent of schools in Gorham.

In Portland, Botana said the district would permit students to participate in a “brief intermission … to exercise their free speech rights with regard to the issue of school violence on school property and without disrupting the school day.”

In addition, he said, “We also encourage our families to have conversations with their students about their expectations and participation in this student-led activity. These types of dialogues can provide the best learning” opportunity.

In Falmouth, superintendent Geoff Bruno said, “students and staff will be participating in the national walkout on March 14. We are proactively planning with our students on how to do this appropriately and safely.”

Andrew Dolloff, the superintendent in Yarmouth, said the district is “providing students with a 20-minute break to focus on school safety during that time period.”

“The students have organized in a respectful manner, and we want to allow each student to express his or her own feelings about school safety in a comfortable environment,” he said. “The students have (asked) to read poetry and make signs in support of the Parkland victims and school safety in general.”

Bradley Smith, superintendent in SAD 75, which includes Topsham and Harpswell, said the district would “neither promote nor inhibit a walkout” adding “this is a student-driven activity.”

“At the same time,” he said, “this is (also) an opportunity to help our students learn how to respect diverse opinions. Regardless of people’s point of view, we need to be able to have civil discourse in this country, so we will insist that students and staff conduct themselves with respect toward everyone.”

In RSU 5, Foley said it’s paramount for parents to also be involved and said, “it’s important that they talk to their kids about being respectful of differing viewpoints and that engaging in social discourse is part of being an involved citizen.”

In Brunswick, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, said, “our intent (is) to utilize this teachable moment to promote our democracy by experiencing its impact in an objective … and positive way.”

He also said students would have a chance to participate in a post-event, question-and-answer session with state legislators.

In Gorham, Perry said the goal for March 14 is to allow “our students to participate in a variety of activities aimed at helping (them) connect to their community, create strong caring relationships with one another, provide support for their fellow high school students from Florida.”

In Westbrook, Maura Rielly, a senior at Westbrook High School, told members of the City Council Monday that there would be a walkout on March 14.

She said students who choose not to participate will remain in their classroom and talk about ways to raise awareness about school safety and gun violence.

In SAD 6, which includes the communities of Standish and Buxton, Superintendent Paul Penna said the walkout provides the district with “an opportunity to partner with our students on issues important to all of us and I can’t think of a more authentic learning experience.”

Sandy Prince, superintendent of the Windham Raymond Schools, said in a letter sent home to parents that “the right to assemble peacefully, together with freedom of expression and freedom of association, rests as a core of our democratic society.”

He said students and staff in Windham would be given “a defined period of time on (March 14) for the limited purpose of allowing (them) to participate in peacefully expressing their views.”

“I wish to be clear that our school district is not endorsing any particular political viewpoint, whether those of the organizers of the National School Walkout or others,” Prince said. “But due to the widespread concern about the issue of school safety, we will permit this one-time break in the school day.”

In SAD 15, which includes Gray and New Gloucester, Superintendent Craig King said, “we are trying to acknowledge this date and event as a civic learning opportunity for our students. We want to acknowledge that school safety, creating a secure school community, and mutual support within the school community are worthy of discussion.”

Howard Colter, the interim superintendent of schools in Cape Elizabeth, said this week that students there are being allowed to take part in the National School Walkout because, “We value student voices and their involvement in local, state and national issues they see as important.”

“We consider this (to be) a learning opportunity. Schools must be a safe and welcoming place for students, teachers and staff.” To that end, Colter said the district encourages students to act with “respect for differing views, kindness, (and to) listen carefully” to each other.

The superintendent in Scarborough did not return a request for comment prior to the Forecaster’s deadline, but according to the Youth EMPOWER website, a walkout is planned for the high school there.

Ken Kunin, the superintendent in South Portland, said students at the high school, as well as the two middle schools, are planning events for the March 14 walkout.

“The district is choosing to call an intermission or recess to the school day to allow for the protest,” he said, adding the students in South Portland are taking part “in solidarity with Florida schools and as part of a call for sensible gun control measures and increased safety in schools.”

Overall, Kunin said, it’s “the schools’ job to help educate students (on) how to live in a democracy. This is a teaching moment, and allowing students to express their opinions … is appropriate.”

Staff writers Elizabeth Clemente, Matt Junker, Mike Kelley, Juliette Laaka, Alex Lear, Robert Lowell and Jocelyn Van Saun contributed to this report.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

All the school districts in the Forecaster’s coverage area are allowing students to participate in the National School Walkout planned for March 14 to commemorate the deaths of 17 people last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.