Update: Following the ACLU-VA's letter, Prince William County Superintendent sent out a second letter to clarify on his statement in the first letter to students and parents.
A number of people in Prince William County have reached out to us about a letter sent to parents and students by the Superintendent of Prince William County Schools regarding student participation in protests about “school gun violence” either on or off campus during school hours. We share the concern of those who reached out to us about the preemptive and somewhat threatening tone of the Superintendent’s 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. The ACLU of Virginia has sent the superintendent a letter on the issue. 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. We encourage the members of the School Board and Prince William students, teachers, administrators and parents to contrast the tone and content of the Superintendent’s letter with this letter from the principal at South Lakes High School expressing the policy of the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), for an example of a more supportive and informed response.
We have written about the principles that we think should guide both student and school administration in this context. Among other things, we agree with the South Lakes principal and, apparently, FCPS, that a peaceful protest even on school grounds during school hours does not cause the kind of material and substantial disruption at school that would warrant disciplinary action or take the students’ conduct outside the bounds of their protected First Amendment rights. Rather, it is a teachable moment and an opportunity to reinforce a positive message about community and civic engagement. Moreover, it is clear that any discipline for an “unexcused” absence imposed on a student participating in off campus protests must be consistent with and no more severe than discipline imposed for other “unexcused” absences.
We encourage any student (or anyone who knows a student) who is disciplined for engaging in a peaceful demonstration related to “school gun violence” or for an unexcused absence for participating in an off campus protest related to “school gun violence” to fill out our intake form so we can determine if additional action is warranted.