ACLU of Virginia represents student suspended for silent political protest
The ACLU of Virginia is representing Kenton Vizdos, a senior at Deep Run High School in Henrico County, who was suspended from school for silently protesting against racism in his school and across the country.
Vizdos began his silent protest on Nov. 4 by displaying a slideshow through Microsoft Teams, the virtual learning platform used by Deep Run. He was allowed to turn his camera off, and ran the slideshow instead of the default screen. He was asked by a few of his teachers to turn off the slideshow, which he refused.
After a call to his parents from the school principal, Dr. Brian Fellows, he was kicked out of class.
The next day, Nov. 5, Vizdos was given a warning from Assistant Principal Laura McKinney that if a teacher reported a “scrolling protest during the class block,” he would be suspended for one to two school days. Vizdos responded by changing the scrolling slideshow to a static image. He displayed the static image during class on Nov. 6 and was kicked out of his second block before class even started.
Later that day, he received a notice of a two-day suspension. Vizdos appealed the suspension and was denied.
After returning to school and continuing to display the static image, he was suspended again, this time for 10 days, because “Kenton’s displays are not directly related to the content being taught during his classes and has caused disruptions,” according to the suspension letter.
“The issues I’m protesting – racism, fascism and injustice – are important to me, and my goal is to start a dialogue about these problems with my classmates and our administration,” said Vizdos. “Too many Black people are killed by police in this country. We have serious problems with systemic racism, and it shows up in law enforcement, in government and in my school. I made sure that my silent protest didn’t break any school rules, but I’m still not allowed to attend my classes.”
“Kenton has every right under the First Amendment to protest in this way, but the administration seems intent on quashing his freedom of speech,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, which sent a letter to the principal of Deep Run on Wednesday requesting a suspension reversal and updates to school policies to protect the First Amendment rights of students during virtual learning.
“Instead of encouraging Kenton’s civic engagement and addressing the issues of systemic racism he’s trying to raise, the administration is punishing him and jeopardizing his future. Schools don’t get to determine how its students express themselves or what issues they care about,” Heilman said.
According to its 2020-2021 Learning Plan, Henrico County Public Schools encourages each student to be an “active participant in a larger society” and to “contribute to solutions that address the needs of a broader community by building global awareness and demonstrating empathy, compassion, and respect for fellow community members.”
Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the “schoolhouse gate,” according to the Supreme Court, and the ACLU of Virginia alleges in the letter that the schoolhouse gate extends to virtual learning due to COVID-19.
In a normal in-person learning environment, Vizdos would be allowed to wear public symbols of protest, stage a peaceful demonstration and start conversations on political issues during non-instructional time.
Vizdos has a disciplinary hearing on Friday with the Student Support & Disciplinary Review Office to determine if the suspension will be upheld.