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Pasco students free to participate in protests without punishment

By Jeffrey S. Solochek
Jeffrey S. Solochek

After several Pasco County students joined their peers statewide in walking out of classes in late February to promote safe schools, one parent complained that her child was threatened with a disciplinary referral for participating.

The seventh-grader told his parents that teachers blocked students from leaving their classrooms and yelled at them, "prohibiting them from exercising their 1st amendment right to peacefully assemble," parent Tomi Glenn told superintendent Kurt Browning in an email. "This disturbs me on many levels."

District leaders, too.

They had not anticipated the Feb. 21 walkouts, having focused their attention on a planned March 14 event. So they had not sent out advice to schools on what to do.

Now they have, and one of the key messages is to not interfere with students’ rights.

"In general, students should not be disciplined when peacefully demonstrating (including sit-ins or walk-outs) unless they are engaged in violent or destructive behavior," assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn told school leaders in a memo soon after the walkouts.

She recommended ways for schools to support student efforts without causing disruptions, such as suggesting moments of silence or organized walks before or after classes.

The district priority remains, after all, to provide instruction, Kuhn noted.

Staff should not actively suggest that a walkout is acceptable, she added. But they also should not prevent participation.

"Staff should not obstruct doorways or otherwise physically engage students unless it is necessary due to imminent threat of harm to self or others," Kuhn wrote, adding a reminder that teachers should remain in their classrooms unless all the students have left.

Assistant superintendent Tammy Berryhill further noted during a session with students that the Florida academic standards include provisions for civic participation, and said teachers could incorporate those into lessons so the walkouts might apply to classroom activities.

In the meantime, the middle-schoolers who faced referrals had those actions overturned by their principal. District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the teachers were following the school district’s policies on walking out of class before the administration issued further guidelines on the specific protests for school safety and gun control.

ARMED TEACHERS? During Senate debate, majority leader Wilton Simpson, a Pasco County Republican, advocated firmly in favor of a "marshal" program that would allow school districts to work with sheriff’s offices in training and arming school employees.

"In my community, we probably will want this program," said Simpson, who also represents Hernando and Citrus counties.

He stressed that the program would be voluntary: "The only thing we are doing is leaving it open as an option for local communities to decide their own fate of their children."

Pasco County school district officials noted that it would be a choice, and indicated they are not keen to participate.

"I have voiced my concerns to Sheriff [Chris] Nocco" about arming school employees, said superintendent Kurt Browning. "I am not convinced that that is the best way to keep our students safe. Any time you introduce more firearms into a school campus, I believe there is a higher risk of injury. These are not law enforcement officers."

School Board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong echoed Browning’s comments. Vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley sent a letter to Simpson and others criticizing the concept, and asking them not to arm teachers.

In an emailed statement, Nocco said he would respect the school district’s position.

"As in all school security matters, it needs to be a collaborative effort," Nocco wrote. "Whether it is additional school resource officers or private security guards to augment security at our schools, either would be beneficial to enhance the protection of our children."

Nocco stated that he agreed with district officials that larger high and middle schools need additional law enforcement or security to ease the workload on deputies in the schools.

He further raised concerns that current funding levels don’t provide enough money to find and train deputies to fill all schools.

"To hire, train, and bring on this large contingent of deputies would be exorbitant," Nocco wrote. "It is more important to look at a holistic and layered approach that includes threat-assessment teams, hardening school environment, additional school resource officers and supplementing them with security guards."

CALENDARS: Florida law requires public schools to provide at least 180 days of student instruction, or the equivalent number of hours.

That added flexibility offers wiggle room, particularly to charter schools that do not want to strictly follow their local district’s academic calendar. They just need to get the School Board’s approval of an alternate schedule.

In Pasco County, the number of charter schools seeking such permission is growing. For 2018-19, three have asked for different student dates — Classical Preparatory, Countryside Montessori and Athenian Academy — while a fourth, Dayspring Academy, also has submitted a different calendar.

Among their proposals, Athenian and Classical plan to hold their first day for students on Aug. 15, rather than the district start date of Aug. 13. Dayspring and Classical will start their winter break on Dec. 21, one day earlier than the district, and end classes on May 24, five days earlier than the district.

Notably, all the charter schools have agreed to hold classes on Veterans Day, as the district decided to do a few years ago to recognize and teach about veterans.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.