What Are Your Rights When You're Walking Out of School in Protest?
If you think you've been punished more harshly than you'd be for any other absence, call the ACLU!!
Photo by Joe Raedle via Getty Images
On Monday, students from Pompano Beach High School in Florida walked out of class at 9:15 in the morning, marching 16 miles to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. During their trek, they chanted, “Spread love, not hate, we just want to graduate!” and “Douglas strong!” Six hours later, the group arrived at the makeshift memorial supporters had erected to the honor the 17 people who died on Valentine’s Day in a school shooting, linked arms, and said a prayer.
They are, of course, far from alone: In the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high, teens across the country have stepped up to advocate fiercely for measures to prevent gun violence. In the next few weeks, things will only intensify, with the March For Our Lives rally happening in Washington, DC, on March 24, which was spearheaded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors; the Women’s March Youth Empower Walkout on March 14 (as of press time, there were 1,279 walkouts planned across the country); and the National School Walkout, which will take place on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting (with more than 800 events planned so far).
But students have already started holding demonstrations on the local level. Last week, teens in Florida, Illinois, Arizona, and other states walked out of their classrooms to protest gun violence, and more walkouts are planned this week and beyond.
In response, several schools have issued warnings to students about participating in such civic activity. One Texas school superintendent, for example, threatened suspension for any student who dared to “disrupt” school with any protests or demonstrations, regardless of whether they had a note from a parent excusing their absence.
This left many wondering: Is this a violation of students’ right to free speech? Last week, the ACLU addressed the question directly, tweeting, “Lots of questions about students’ rights in a walkout. Here’s the gist: Your school can punish you for missing class, just like they always can, but it can’t punish you more harshly for protesting than if you were missing class for another reason.”
"Your school can punish you for missing class, just like they always can, but it can’t punish you more harshly for protesting than if you were missing class for another reason.”
Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center and a civil rights attorney with an interest in education equity and student discipline, confirms that the law supports students’ right to assemble, though students still can be punished, generally, for unexcused absences. But a school “can’t, for example, give you a harsher suspension for missing class to protest as opposed to missing class to hang out with your friends in the cafeteria,” she says.
Pointing to the example of the school superintendent who threatened suspension for any form of protest as it relates to gun violence, Brodsky continues, “That suggests to me that it’s not about missing class—it’s about the substance of the protest, and that’s impermissible… The Supreme Court has made clear that you don’t leave your First Amendment rights at the school gate as a student.”
Before walking out for a demonstration, Brodsky suggests students become aware of their school’s policies on discipline. Public schools often have progressive discipline, she explains, meaning students are punished more severely for each concurrent offense. In other words, depending on the circumstance, a first-time offense might warrant a verbal warning or detention, a second offense, suspension, etc.
“A student might want to understand what kind of punishment they can expect,” Brodsky says. “And that will help them make their individual decisions and know that they are punished unusually harshly because of the content of their action.” So, she adds, if this is the first time you’ve missed class but you’re getting punished as if it’s the third time, that may warrant further investigation into whether or not your rights have been violated. She recommends turning to the ACLU or a similar organization if that appears to be the case. “It’s absolutely true that just because the law is clear, that doesn’t mean your school is going to follow it,” she warns.
(And, for those worried that a suspension might mar their permanent record: At least 40 US colleges, including Yale, Brown, and MIT, have announced publicly that any suspensions for protesting gun violence will not hurt potential students’ admission chances.)
At the end of the day, however, it’s up to an individual to decide whether they’re willing to risk getting into trouble to advocate for gun control. “Protest isn’t always easy,” Brodsky says. “Sometimes you have to take a stand that isn’t convenient or personally advantageous.”