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Prince William School Superintendent Says Principals Can Organize Safe School Demonstrations

| February 22, 2018 | 0 Comments | Education

Dr. Steven Walts, Superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools.

Dr. Steven Walts, Superintendent of Prince William County Schools, sent a second letter to parents regarding student demonstrations in response to the Parkland school shooting on Feb. 14. In this letter, he encouraged principals to work with students to plan school-sanctioned demonstrations.

The Feb. 22 letter followed the Patriot High School student-led controlled walkout, Feb. 21, in which students gathered for 17 minutes on the football field. It also addresses concerns from parents who were disappointed that the administration threatened disciplinary action against students who may participate in a political demonstration that disrupts the school day.

In his second letter, which he sent to parents and educators of students in high school and middle school, Walts explains that demonstrations should be conducted in a manner that respects all students and most importantly keeps everyone safe.

Walts included a similar message near the end of his original letter. However, that letter also warned of disciplinary actions that would be taken should students participate unapproved protests.

In his second letter, he clarified his position.

“I clearly sent the wrong message yesterday. Allow me to try again. Parkland, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and all the others were sickening,” he wrote. “If you’re passionate about stopping school shootings and saving lives, take action. Work with your friends. Join in safe, well-organized demonstrations. As I said yesterday, that’s your right and your responsibility. So, can you protest or speak out at school or elsewhere? Absolutely!”

Walts explained that at the Feb. 21 school board meeting Kate Arnold, Student Representative to the School Board, presented a possibility that may satisfy all (or most) parties.

“It would have willing staff members oversee the safe exit of students for a facilitated event. Other employees could supervise students who choose not to join in. That might work. While school employees can’t create student protests, they can provide opportunities for conversations, and even facilitate safe, supervised places for activism,” Walts said.

Walts said he is leaving it to the principals to find the right approach for their schools, and hopes that principal approved protests will eliminate concerns over disciplinary actions.

He stated that PWCS will work with students who wish to take part in the nationwide April 20 observance of the Columbine anniversary. “That’s why I promised yesterday that we’d work to find ways to let you do that without violating any PWCS rules or disrupting teaching and learning.”

He further explained that it would be irresponsible for him to simply allow students to walk out of class at will because the school division is responsible for the safety of the students during school hours.

PWCS is responsible for the safety and the education of 90,000 students. How can we keep you safe if you can freely leave school any time to participate in protests on campus or off? It’s unlikely, but you could become somebody’s target, or be involved in an accident. And how can we give you a good education if classes can be constantly disrupted by students walking out to protest. We do have to enforce our normal school rules, even as we allow for some flexibility. Remember, no one has more reason than students to demand safe schools. And no one wants you to succeed more than I do. I just want to make sure you’re safe, and still getting a good education while you try to tell the world about the need to prevent school shootings.

Since Walts’ first email and the Patriot walkout, parents, students and community members have been very vocal about their concerns. According to comments on social media, some citizens fully support the students in their protests and want the school division to support and facility, not discipline, the student activists.

Others have said the schools should deny the walkouts and discipline those who participate, as it is not the job of schools to facility political demonstrations.

The discussion was especially divisive since citizens hold strong opinions on gun control and the second amendment. It also put the rights of students at odds with the authority of school leaders.

But student organizers at Patriot said students who participated in the walkout felt passionately that they needed to take a stand and show the world how they about school violence and gun laws.

Patriot student-organizer Megan Black said she had hoped her school would supportive of her student activism.

“I really wish that. There are so many other schools across the nation that are supporting their students and walking out. We are standing up for a really good cause…really this walking out is a show of how many students are in support and I feel that we cannot do that in any other way,” said Black.

In addition to parental concerns, the Virginia ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] exerted pressure on PWCS. On Feb. 22, the activist organization posted its concern over the Superintendent’s first letter to parents. The author of the article described the Superintendent’s tone as “somewhat threatening,” and called for parents and students to speak out against the Superintendent’s Feb. 21 letter.

“We would hope that parents and students would make their concerns about this letter known directly both to the Superintendent and the School Board. It is a shame that the Superintendent doesn’t see the students’ interest in these issues as a positive example of the kind of community and civic engagement that the Code of Behavior in Prince William suggests is expected and encouraged.”

School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers responded to the ACLU on Twitter, saying he would be happy to change the Code of Behavior to protect students rights. He noted he has already called for the superintendent’s resignation over an incident of a car accident.

Sawyers did not attend the heated school board meeting to address his concerns with the Superintendent.

Vice Chairwoman Lillie Jessie said she often disagrees with Sawyers and said if she had a problem with the Superintendent she would approach him directly not via the news media. Nonetheless, in regards to agenda setting and other issues, she said that Sawyers is the Chairman regardless of how people feel about that.

© 2018, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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