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ACLU to school superintendents: Resist impulse to punish peaceful student protesters

aclu virginiaThe ACLU of Virginia has advised all public school superintendents in the Commonwealth that they cannot punish students who walk out of school as a form of protest more harshly than if they are absent from class for any other reason.

In a letter sent March 2, ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga acknowledged students may be subjected to discipline for walking out during school hours, but said school administrators also have the opportunity to recognize peaceful protest as a positive civic activity to be admired and encouraged.

“From the ACLU of Virginia’s perspective, a public school should always seek to impose the fewest and narrowest restrictions on student expression possible given the special circumstances of the school environment,” the letter states. “We strongly question whether being absent from class for a few minutes or even a day creates a substantial disturbance or disruption of school activities or infringes on the rights of other students.”

The letter continues, “Virginia public schools and school divisions would be well-advised, under all the circumstances, to adopt an educational rather than a disciplinary approach to these activities. Just because you can argue that you have the power to discipline students for protesting or walking out doesn’t mean you should choose to do so.”

In fact, it would be unconstitutional to subject students who walk out in protest of gun violence in schools more harshly than students who are miss class for some other reason, the letter states.

The letter was sent in anticipation of nationwide student walkouts planned for March 14 and April 20 over the issue of gun violence in schools, and also as impromptu walkout protests already have taken place in several Virginia high schools.

The ACLU-VA warned in the letter that, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” The civil rights organization is urging any Virginia public school student who participates in a walkout and believes they received harsher punishment than other students who miss class for other reasons to submit an intake for legal team review.