The kids want to stand up and protest — Paso district says sit down and be quiet

Joe Tarica
Joe Tarica

Somehow, incomprehensibly, the Paso Robles school district has found a way to do the wrong thing on next week's nationwide student walkout to protest gun violence.

While most other districts around San Luis Obispo County took a supportive and measured approach to what is sure to be a widespread demonstration Wednesday, Paso proved itself willfully immune to the moment.

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Instead of recognizing the gravitas of this youthful uprising inspired by the Florida school shooting, Paso is citing the California Education Code, saying it has no choice but to mark any players-of-hooky-for-a-good-cause as little more than careless truants.

Superintendent Chris Williams explained the district's reasoning in a letter to parents.

"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," he said. "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."

Yeah, whatever, blah blah blah.

That's just a lot of sound and worry signifying nothing.

All it shows is that the district apparently does not understand the significance of this event, is not willing to think creatively, and has committed to a position that leaves administrators looking tone-deaf and morally weak.

The young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School didn't wait for permission to storm the statehouse, and they didn't worry about trivial consequences. Quite the contrary, they have cast caution to the wind and stood up as examples of strength and courage.

They didn't try the same tired approaches that have accomplished nothing or do only what they were allowed. They did the opposite.

If the kids at Paso High want to join them by merely taking a 17-minute break from class in solidarity, however, they're going to get a black mark on their record and possibly be sent to the counselor's office.

Personally, I hope every single student K-12 marches out and administrators can then waste hours and hours of time processing the little ne'er-do-wells.

That's apparently what Paso's policy calls for in dealing with unexcused absences, of which this would qualify.

Spokeswoman Martha Clayton did note that the district handles these delinquencies on a case-by-case basis, which begs the question: Why not treat this as one giant exception to the rule?

Everyone else is figuring out a way to let the students express themselves in a meaningful way. What do you possibly have to gain by being the outlier and playing tough?

In fact, this is a fantastic learning opportunity and a lesson in community engagement.

We want students to participate and care about issues that affect them. Threatening them with discipline does not help develop leaders of the future. It just just discourages them, compels them to cow to unreasonable authority and furthers distrust in leaders who should know better.

Also, telling them to just go demonstrate on a Saturday in San Luis Obispo when it's convenient is downright comical. We appreciate your right to free of speech, kids, we just want no part of it ourselves. It's too much trouble.

Guess what, Paso? Democracy is troublesome. It's loud, unruly and follows its own schedule, and you shouldn't have to be 18 to lend your voice to the throng.

I hope this poor decision is merely a case of bureaucratic misjudgment (someone listening too closely to a lawyer, perhaps?) and not outright hostility to student voices. I hope Paso reconsiders its position and instead finds a way to let its kids express themselves in a safe and secure way.

Otherwise, the only lasting black mark on anyone's personal record will be on the district itself.

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Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica