These Schools Are Threatening To Punish Students For Protesting Gun Violence

Photographed by Sage McAvoy.
As teenagers around the country are leading the much-needed conversation on gun violence, some school districts are responding by vowing to punish them for exercising their first amendment rights.
A school district near Houston, TX, has come under fire for threatening to suspend students for "any type of protest or awareness" during school hours.
Needville Independent School District superintendent Curtis Rhodes wrote on Tuesday in a letter to families that students would be slapped with a three-day, out-of-school suspension if they participated in any of the nationwide walkouts or protests planned in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
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"Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative. We will discipline no matter if it is one, 50, or 500 students involved," Rhodes wrote. "All will be suspended for three days and parent notes will not alleviate the discipline."
Rhodes, a registered Republican according to public records obtained by The Washington Post, did not respond to a request for comment. Rhodes' office voicemail box — and the voicemail boxes of the rest of the administration — are now full. Needville High School's Facebook page, where the letter was also posted, is currently unavailable.
Scores of people on Twitter have been posting the Needville Independent School District's phone number and Rhodes' email. Some are calling for him to be fired and are encouraging teens to come out en masse despite the warnings.
A few students have made clear they aren't having it. "Needville wants to suspend me for three days because I want to walk out because I don't think it's fair that some idiot suspended 17 lives of someone that could've been me," one student tweeted. "But the best part of it all is that we're not delinquent kids just trying be rebellious. We're all the kids that have good grades and are involved in extracurricular events representing our school in the best way possible. We’re the kids that have something to lose."
Legal experts are calling Rhodes' warning unconstitutional.
“Students don’t abandon their right to free speech at the schoolhouse door,” Kali Cohn, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, told Refinery29. “The Constitution protects students when they speak or express political or social views in school, so long as their speech is not disruptive. Administrators can’t censor political speech they might find distasteful, nor can they punish students more harshly for missing school to take part in a political protest than they would for any other unexcused absence. Moments like this one create important opportunities for students to learn about civic engagement, and schools should support them — not punish them — as they use their political voices.”
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Rhodes' move is a "quintessential first amendment violation," Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown Law, told The Washington Post. “What’s really weird about this is that they announced they will suspend people over the content of their off-campus protest. Content-based restrictions on speech are anathema to the first amendment. So this looks like a total problem.”
Another school district, this one in Virginia's Prince William County, is also planning to discipline students who walk out during school hours, although there's no talk of suspension. “PWCS recognizes your right to free speech and to protest, but these rights do not extend to disrupting classes or to leaving school,” superintendent Steven Walts wrote to the school community in an email on Wednesday. “Students who cause disruptions or leave school without authorization will face disciplinary consequences... There are plenty of ways to show your feelings and support outside of school and when classes are not in session."
He added that the district is working on "appropriate" ways to allow students to participate in a nationwide show of solidarity on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine massacre.
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who served as the chief ethics lawyer to George W. Bush, said the legality around what these school districts are doing is murky. Schools can choose to punish students for skipping class, but they can't clamp down on free speech.
"This is a very difficult issue from a legal perspective because the students are being penalized for walking out of class rather than for their speech," Painter told Refinery29. "Obviously the decision not to allow them to leave class is politically motivated, but that may not change the outcome."
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He added: "That's why I say take the suspension and wear it as a badge of honor."
In 1969, the Supreme Court made it clear that punishing students for exercising their first amendment rights is illegal and unconstitutional. According to Tinker v. Des Moines, a landmark ruling in which the court sided with student Vietnam War protestors, students and teachers do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Superintendent Rhodes has made controversial statements before. In 2008, a court ruled that asking a Native American kindergartner to cut or conceal his hair, as Rhodes did, on the grounds of the school's "grooming policy" offends his religious beliefs and is invalid under Texas law. “We’re not going to succumb to everything and just wash away our policies and procedures,” Rhodes told the Houston Press at the time. “A school district is a reflection of the community. We’ve consistently been very conservatively dressed, very conservatively disciplined. It’s no secret what our policy is: You’ll cut your hair to the right point. You’ll tuck in your shirt. You’ll have a belt.”
Since the Florida school shooting replaced Columbine as the deadliest high school mass shooting in America last week, thousands of students all over the country have been walking out of class and speaking up at rallies to demand action from lawmakers. On March 14, there will be a National School Walkout planned by the Women’s March’s Youth EMPOWER group. And on April 20, a National School Walkout is being planned in honor of Columbine.
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On March 24, student organizers are planning the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
“The mission and focus of March for Our Lives is to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues,” according to its website. “No special interest group, no political agenda is more critical than timely passage of legislation to effectively address the gun violence issues that are rampant in our country.”
Strategic civil disobedience works, as the civil rights era has shown us. The teenagers at the heart of this nascent movement are speaking out in ways many adults have been afraid to. And it's important that they continue to use their voices.
They have the support of at least one former president.
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