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Maine school district warns students not to participate in March 14 walkout

Gillian Jones | The Berkshire Eagle | AP
Gillian Jones | The Berkshire Eagle | AP
Taconic High School students march around the running track during a rally at the school's athletic field in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Feb. 27, 2018. Students in the Pittsfield school system walked out of class in solidarity with victims of the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Maine SAD 13 superintendent said in a letter that students who decide to participate in a March 14 walkout to protest gun violence will be “subject to normal disciplinary procedures.”
By Callie Ferguson, BDN Staff
Updated:

Students and staff in School Administrative District 13 — a rural district based in Somerset County — will be penalized if they participate in a March 14 national walkout to protest gun violence, officials said.

Students who decide to join thousands of others across the country in walking out of their buildings at 10 a.m. that day will be marked “absent without permission” and “subject to normal disciplinary procedures,” Superintendent Virginia Rebar wrote in a letter posted on the district’s website. Penalties will also extend to staff, she wrote.

Rebar could not immediately be reached for comment.

The national demonstration was organized in the wake of a Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a gunman killed 17 people, making it one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. At 10 a.m. March 14, participants will walk outside their buildings for 17 minutes, according to actionnetwork.org.

Students at more than a dozen Maine schools announced they will participate in the protest.

SAD 13 includes Moscow Elementary School in Moscow; Quimby Elementary School in Bingham; and Valley High School, also in Bingham. The Bangor Daily News could not immediately learn whether students and staff there planned to join the walkout.

[Opinion: Students marching for change after the Florida shooting need our support]

The district’s decision to impose penalties came after a Feb. 27 meeting of school officials.

“The First Amendment prohibits governmental entities from viewpoint discrimination. Students and staff having views differing from those of the Walkout would have to have an equal opportunity to express their views. Scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the District,” Rebar wrote.

“Students and staff do not have a First Amendment right to disrupt or interrupt the school day for political advocacy,” she wrote.

Rebar also wrote that she has “great reservations about exposing students across the nation to an announced presence outside of locked classrooms and locked buildings.”

Her statement appears to be based on a Feb. 26 memo sent by email to districts by the Maine School Management Association. That memo, written by attorney Bruce Smith of Drummond Woodsum, offered five pages of guidance to school officials in anticipation of the March 14 protest.

It outlines three possible responses: disapproval of the walkout and enforcement of school rules; endorsement of the walkout; or, scheduling a 10 a.m. recess to coincide with the walkout.

Rebar’s letter, which refers to having consulted “legal counsel,” includes verbatim language from the memo’s disapproval section.

The Maine Department of Education has not taken a stance on the protest. Each school district has the authority to choose how they respond to or “manage” a walkout, said spokeswoman Rachel Paling.

Rebar joins other school officials across the country who have warned students not to protest during school hours. In Texas, a superintendent threatened to suspend students who walked out of their classes on March 14.

Other Maine schools officials said they are working with students to plan the walkouts — like at Bangor High School, according to a student organizer — or have told students in advance that they will not be punished if they walk out.

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