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Manchester school board member says student walkout over gun violence won't solve anything

By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader

March 13. 2018 11:53PM




MANCHESTER — As officials in school districts across the state prepare for possible walkouts by students this morning, some Manchester school board members expressed disappointment this week with a letter sent by the district condoning the action.

Thousands of students and teachers are planning to walk out of their classrooms today as part of #Enough! National School Walkout to raise awareness about issues of school safety and the impact of gun violence on students.

The nationwide march, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, will happen at 10 a.m. and last 17 minutes — one minute for each person killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

This chart is found with the ACLU guide to school walkouts, published on its website this week. (SOURCE: aclu-nh.org)

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire published a “First Amendment Guide to School Walkouts” online, which states, “While these acts of civil disobedience may be effective and well-intentioned, it is best to know how these actions are related to your First Amendment rights and whether or not they may lead to school discipline.”

“The First Amendment does not consider a ‘Walkout’ protected speech,” the guide warns. “The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly. However, these rights are not absolute in that a person is not given the right to assemble anywhere or say anything. A school walkout is not considered the same type of speech as wearing a political slogan. A school may take corrective action if you miss school without an excused absence, even if you were participating in a political protest.”

The guide also warns students their school may punish them if they participate in a walkout.

“Students are required to be at school except for an excused absence,” the guide states.

“We hope schools recognize that even when they are within their right to discipline students for protests, that doesn’t always mean they should,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for ACLU New Hampshire. “Schools can typically discipline students for disrupting education activities, even if they’re doing so to participate in a protest or otherwise express themselves. But what the school can’t do is discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don’t support the views behind the protest. In other words, any disciplinary action for walking out cannot be a response to the content of the protest.”

Last Friday, Dr. Bolgen Vargas, Manchester’s superintendent of schools, sent a letter to parents about possible student walkouts at city schools today.

In the letter, Vargas writes there will be designated, supervised locations at each high school where students can gather outside, while those choosing not to participate will remain inside, where “instruction will continue uninterrupted.”

On Monday, school board member Jimmy Lehoux of Ward 8 told Vargas he thought the superintendent had put board members in a “tough position” by sending home the letter without consulting them first.

Lehoux posted an open letter on Facebook this weekend addressed to “fellow parents and guardians of the Manchester school community,” which he stressed was not endorsed by the Manchester school district or any other school board members.

“I challenged my kids (and I urge you to do the same) on whatever day the walkout is planned to resist the feeling of being with the ‘in’ crowd. The way to really effect change is by one heart and one mind at a time. I urged them to complete 17 acts of kindness, one for each person that perished in Parkland, Lehoux wrote in his post. “Walking out of school will not solve anything or create real change that is needed. That real change starts with one’s own heart.”

Lehoux said he received more than 100 phone calls over the weekend from people regarding his post. Lehoux said his greatest concern with Vargas sending home a letter last week was having a specific date and time when students would be outside school buildings made public, possibly putting the students at risk. He also suggested Vargas opened a “Pandora’s Box” in terms of blanket support for future protests on all types of issues.

Vargas defended his decision to support requests from students to participate in the national movement, saying his failure to notify school board members of the letter prior to sending it showed it was more of an “operational decision” rather than a policy decision.

Mayor Joyce Craig defended the way Vargas handled the request from students to participate in the walkout movement.

“The situation we have here today is something happening nationally, and our superintendent came forward, put some parameters around it, communicated to parents and to teachers,” said Craig. “It’s been said very clearly this is not going to be disruptive.”

On Tuesday, school administrators in Litchfield sent an email home to parents saying they were approached several weeks ago by Campbell High School Student Council leaders notifying them wanted to participate in the event.

“We explained to the students that the district and building administration would support students participating in this event,” writes CHS Principal Bill Lonergan. “We are extremely proud of our student leaders on their approach to this issue, and we hope their speaking out and their conviction about the need for change will add to the awareness and conversation and contribute to help bring about change.”

peely@unionleader.com


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