Local school districts prepare for nationwide walkout, while turnouts remain uncertain

In preparation for Wednesday’s planned nationwide student walkout to protest mass shootings and gun violence, local schools have been informing parents and students on what their policies are regarding the matter, and whether walking out could earn kids time in detention.

Several superintendents said students need a parent’s approval in order to take part in the 17-minute walkout and protest. That’s the case in Aberdeen, Montesano and North Beach.

Aberdeen issued statements explaining that without permission, students would get a basic lunch detention for being absent from class. Teachers from Aberdeen were also given a document explaining that if they wanted to participate, they would need to use their leave without pay or personal/vacation time off.

While some schools had received a handful of absence forms as of Tuesday, most of the districts contacted hadn’t detected significant interest in the walkout in general. North Beach Superintendent Deborah Holcomb said the Junior/Senior High School held an assembly to review their absence policies, but that a number of students weren’t aware of the nationwide walkouts.

“We wanted to get a sense if more kids might participate, and we didn’t get a sense of that,” said Holcomb. “A lot of kids hadn’t heard of (the protests).”

Holcomb said her district’s staff has also suggested alternative ways to make a statement other than walkout protests, such as giving others 17 positive messages instead of walking out and standing in silence.

Montesano Superintendent Dan Winter also said he hadn’t “heard a word” in terms of interest in walkouts.

Winter said school safety is his first priority and added, “I think if kids want to go out and support the victims of Parkland, I support that. If they want to draw attention to the need for increased school safety, we certainly support it.”

South Bend School District Superintendent Jon Tienhaara said they might mark students absent, but that it wouldn’t be cause for punishment.

“Our stance is, we’re not going to discipline kids if they choose to participate in something like that,” said Tienhaara. “Obviously, we can’t allow a substantial disruption to school. But if they wanted to leave and go somewhere to do that, we’d mark them absent, and they’d do their thing. There wouldn’t be any severe discipline as a result of that.”

Tienhaara did say, however, that he informed school staff that they need to continue their work and remain in classrooms to teach during the 10 a.m. protest time. South Bend High School Principal Jason Nelson similarly said he wouldn’t go out of his way to discipline absent students protesting.

“Assuming students participated in an organized, peaceful protest, I believe I would respect that and work with them,” said Nelson. “If somehow it presents itself in a different way, I’d have to take it as it comes and can’t predict, but if students walk out it’s not my plan to hand out disciplines for that.”

Despite not everyone being aware of the walkouts, Aberdeen Superintendent Alicia Henderson said she met with the high school’s student leadership group last week to discuss walkout policies and she did pick up on a collective need for a greater sense of student safety.

“They’re clearly engaged, although not all the students were aware of the walkout,” she said. “I definitely picked up an overall sense of concern, naturally, for school safety.”