Today, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams to express our great disappointment at LCPS's failure to support the efforts of their students who choose to participate in this historic student walkout.
"We would hope that you would see this planned, national March 14 walkout for what it is – a rare opportunity for an interactive lesson in participatory democracy," stated the letter. "LCPS principals and administrators are in a unique position to foster emerging democratic engagement between students and should not punish students for participating in what will be a defining moment in their young lives."
The ACLU of Virginia and other affiliates across the nation are urging school administrators at all levels to view the planned walkouts as phenomenal educational opportunities. Instead of suppressing the spirit of public engagement and public service, school administrators should encourage students to use their voice and lead their peers to that ideal of the productive, involved, orderly exercise of citizenship.
To that end, school administrators can support students by:
- Allow students to attend demonstrations. School absentee policies in Virginia and elsewhere allow for occasional absences and excused absences for religious education, doctors’ appointments and even educational family events. Attending a demonstration for 17 minutes of a school day should be treated equally. Absence policies should not be used to punish students who are engaged in the educational experience of participatory democracy -- especially when the engagement is all about the need to ensure that they can pursue their education in a safe environment.
- Give clear guidance on expectations. Ensure that students know what is expected of them and what they can do to voice their opinion. Students should be allowed to peacefully demonstrate, distribute literature and wear any insignia of their protest, such as shirts. Schools may regulate this speech to prevent disruption of education, but keep in mind that this sort of discussion is education and the students’ ability to express their political viewpoints must be respected.
- Foster healthy debate. In today’s world, too often we are insulated from opposing viewpoints. This is a great opportunity to foster debate in an accepting environment. I urge you to use this opportunity as a teachable moment. You may want to consider setting aside time for assemblies or other events to consider the urgent issues of school safety that students across the country are now focused on. Teach your students what it means to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights and to argue persuasively, which requires truly understanding opposing views and remaining respectful. And, of course, equally respect students who do not want to join demonstrations or who wish to oppose the most popular views.
You can view and download the letter in the attached document below.