After several Pasco County students joined their peers statewide last week in walking out of classes 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 any advice to schools on what to do.
Now they have, and one of the key messages is not to 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 students 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 noted during a session with students on Monday that the Florida academic standards include provisions for civic participation, and said teachers could incorporate those into lessons so the walkouts might apply to the 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 particular circumstances of student protests for school safety and gun control.