Today, the ACLU-VA received a letter from Prince William County Associate Superintendent for Communications & Technology Services Phil Kavits regarding its criticism of the County's Feb. 21 letter to students and parents. In the spirit of transparency, we're sharing this letter here:
701 East Franklin Street
Richmond, VA 23213
Thanks you for taking the time to speak with me briefly about the School Division’s position on recent and planned student demonstrations. Since your concerns were addressed to Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) Superintendent Steven Walts, in a message dated February 22, 2018, please consider this a response on his behalf to that message as well. Regrettably, your message was sent late in the day to an email box which gets a substantial number of messages; consequently, our ability to respond was delayed. That’s regrettable, since your organization appears to have provided a limited understanding of the Division’s position, without benefit of the bigger picture.
As you are well aware, the primary obligation of any school system is to educate students (which certainly includes allowing them to exercise their right to free speech and protest). However, all of this assumes that schools are first keeping students safe, and secondly maintaining an environment in which education can happen). The Superintendent’s original message to Prince William County families and students, of which the ACSL is critical, was primarily about measures intended to ensure student safety and the integrity of the educational environment. To accomplish that end, The Superintendent’s message emphasized that normal school rules will remain in place, while also noting that the School Division will work with students and staff to facilitate their right and responsibility to be heard. When others commented that the emphasis focused too heavily on the need to maintain safety and order, Dr. Walts sent a subsequent message to clarify the Division ‘s support of students’ rights to peacefully assemble and protest. While we had no time to respond before seeing your very public criticism, the message Dr. Walts sent (below), certainly addresses your concerns:
This message went to all PWCS middle and high schools students, as well as to every student household Divisionwide. It was delivered in multiple languages to make certain that the position of the Division and the Superintendent are well understood throughout the school community.
While you may prefer the response from one School Division over another, it seems counterproductive to take aim at a Division that is striving to do nothing more than make certain that any students protests that do take place are safe and do not disrupt the educational environment. In past years, other protests have resulted in students walking in busy streets and taking other significant risks; in one School Division, a student was hit by a car. It is our responsibility to make sure that does not happen with any anticipated walkouts.
I hope you will review the Superintendent’s latest message and share with the public that PWCS intends to encourage students to exercise their rights, safely and respectfully, without infringing on the rights of others; objectives with which the ACLU can certainly agree.
Philip B. Kavits
Associate Superintendent, Communications and Technology
Prince William County Public Schools