Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Open Letter to America's School Boards

With regard to the upcoming walkouts planned for Wednesday, I want to appeal to you that the appropriate thing to do is to allow the walkouts but to record either an unexcused absence or tardy to those students who participate.  If the school wants to not “sanction” the event, then they must record either an unexcused absence or tardy because, by not doing so, the district is providing tacit approval for the action.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and of religion among other rights.  It is important to note that any claim made under the First Amendment on the grounds of free speech must also be applied equally to freedom of religion.  In other words, if there is no unexcused absence or tardy recorded for students who walk out in protest of school violence or the somewhat veiled gun control issue, there can clearly not be an unexcused absence or tardy recorded the next time a student organizes a prayer walk-out – at least if the First Amendment is going to be held up in its entirety.

This is a very dangerous precedent that will be set if there is no penalty for simply walking out of class to make a political statement.  Again, in an effort to preserve the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, if schools just give students a free pass to protest on Wednesday, I  would encourage students to organize such a prayer walk-out to see if the schools really are defenders of the First Amendment’s religious protections as well.  I would prefer that school time be used for learning and not protesting political ideas.  If students want to protest, they can do it – penalty free- on lunch hour or after school.

The Colorado Springs Gazette article from March 11, 2018 entitled Widespread walkouts expected as Colorado Springs-area students observe Florida shootings, says, “Cheyenne Mountain D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper said he's met with student organizers about logistics.  He's quick to point out that the district isn't sponsoring or endorsing any facet of the event. "But I do feel it is incumbent upon us to support our kids and their efforts, if they truly feel so strongly about something," Cooper said. No students will face consequences for participation or declining participation, he added.”

So Cooper makes the argument that while he’s met with organizers about logistics and assured them that no students will face consequences for participating or declining participation the district isn’t sponsoring or endorsing any facet of the event.  Really?  I don’t think that passes the Constitutional test – especially when compared to a similar religious freedom test.  Imagine when, in a few weeks, Christian students “feel so strongly about something” like prayer that they organize a walkout during class time for a 15 minute prayer.  Will Superintendent Cooper meet with student organizers about logistics?  Will he ensure that they will face no consequences for participation or declining participation?  In order to uphold the Constitution, he must treat both situations equally and ensure that Christian students who want to pray are treated as equally as students who want to protest.

Before deciding that no consequences will be handed down for the Wednesday protests, I hope school districts understand that there are other students who will expect the same treatment when their version of free speech and freedom of religion is exercised.  Are districts ready to handle both the logistics and the legal challenges which will ensue?

If students want to walk out, just let them know that they’ll have a tardy or unexcused absence noted for the time.  This, it seems to me, is the best way to ensure that schools are used for education and not political or religious statements in the future – and a way to consistently uphold the free speech and religious protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.