Paso schools tell kids: Walk out to protest guns and you'll be in trouble

Paso Robles Joint Unified School District announced this week that students walking out of class to protest gun violence will face discipline.
Paso Robles Joint Unified School District announced this week that students walking out of class to protest gun violence will face discipline.

Any Paso Robles student walking out of class to protest gun violence as part of a nationwide event on March 14 will be sanctioned with an unexcused absence, the district announced in a letter to parents this week.

The move is a break from how other school districts in the county are planning to handle the protest,which was inspired by the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

"In brief, school districts are bound by (the California Education Code), which states that attendance is mandatory and only excused for reasons listed such as illness. Courts have ruled that students do not have a free speech right to leave school to participate in protests. For this reason, absences are identified as unexcused," Paso Robles Joint Unified School District Superintendent Chris Williams wrote on March 5. "It is with that regard we would like to share with you that we are not recommending a school walkout as noting the date, time, and place of a walkout actually creates opportunity for a potentially unsafe environment for a number of reasons."

Williams wrote that students wishing to protest gun violence should instead do so at the "March For Our Lives" event on Saturday, March 24 in San Luis Obispo.

Instead, Williams announced that on the week of March 14, the district will host a series of events "that help educate students about the following areas: kindness, preventing bullying, safety protocols, social media effects, bystander effect."

The Paso district's policy diverges from how most other local schools are handling the protest.

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School districts like Coast Unified and Lucia Mar Unified have set aside 17 minutes for students to speak during the planned walkout, while San Luis Coastal Unified is working with students to see how they want to proceed with the protest and Atascadero Unified recognizes "students do have a right to express their feelings, beliefs and opinions in this manner" but seeks to avoid an "oppositional or confrontational type situation," according to Superintendent Tom Butler.

The Tribune emailed the Paso school district to ask whether Superintendent Williams believed other school districts were erring in allowing students to walk out on March 14.

Williams responded, "I think it's important to reiterate the role that our students have taken in determining how they want their voices to be heard. Student groups have been working to create their own means by which to discuss the events that are occurring in the world and on their campuses. This includes student-led assemblies and discussions. We value the opinions of our students and staff, and our job is to make sure that they are safe in whatever they choose to do."

School district spokeswoman Martha Clayton said that the district handles unexcused absences on a case-by-case basis.

"One unexcused absence usually results in a meeting with the counselor," she said.

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While the landmark Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines found that students "do not shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," that decision does not prevent schools from punishing students who walk out of class.

What it does prevent, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, is the district disciplining a student participating in a walkout protest "more harshly because of the political nature of, or the message behind, your action."

In a letter to state school leaders, including Williams, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, urged superintendents not to discipline students participating in the walkout. Such walkouts do not create "a substantial disruption, nor infringe on the rights of other students," he wrote.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler