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Local schools see 'teachable moment' in national gun violence walkout

It's a firsthand lesson in the Constitution, political science, grass roots organizing, campaigning and old-fashioned civics.

Students across the region will join others around the country in a national student walkout Wednesday to mark the one-month anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Their teachers and principals, for the most part, are behind them.

"This is their court right now, and it's real for them," said Eden Central Superintendent Sandra Anzalone. "We want to support what they want to do. It's not ours to plan, it's not ours to encourage, it's not ours to discourage."

The walkout has also left administrators with a dilemma: How to allow students to exercise their First Amendment rights while ensuring they follow school rules and remain safe?

The walkout, scheduled for 10 a.m., is in response to gun violence in all forms, as well as the shootings in Parkland, Fla., according to organizers of #Enough National School Walkout. The day marks one month since the gunman entered the school and opened fire. The Nevewalkout is for 17 minutes, to mark the 17 students and staff who were killed.

The shooting shocked the nation, and the response by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas galvanized teenagers around the country.

Anzalone said students in Eden approached Principal Jeffrey P. Cervoni, and the role of administrators is to make sure everyone is safe. To that end, Eden wants to keep students indoors.

"They have told them they want to honor the 17 students who were killed in the Parkland tragedy," Anzalone said of students. "We know it will be good and powerful for the kids."

Classes will continue during the demonstration for those who do not want to participate. And those who do walk out will not be disciplined.

"The last thing we want is any discipline coming out on that day," Anzalone said. "We believe it is their Constitutional right to do this."

Schools can discipline students for walking out, but they cannot "discipline students more harshly because they are walking out to express a political view or because school administrators don’t support the views behind the protest," according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Williamsville Central Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff told parents in a letter last week that the district is proud that students want to exercise their First Amendment rights, but that some students may not want to participate. He said the district is not endorsing the walkout, but he believes it has a duty to give it some structure to make it as safe as possible.

"We're talking in general about a 17-minute item they may or may not participate in," Martzloff said. "I really can't think of anything more fundamental to the students' civic experience in school than that."

Martzloff told parents that the student-led activity may look different at each middle and high school. Nothing is planned at the elementary schools.

He also told parents that students will assemble in a predetermined space on school grounds, and administrators as well as faculty and staff volunteers will attend the events to ensure sufficient supervision and student safety. Teachers will continue to supervise students in their classrooms, even if the majority of their students leave class to participate in the activity. School liaison officers will visit each middle and high school before 10 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Martlzoff also asked parents not to attend.

Students who participate will not be disciplined, but they are expected to remain on school property during the 17-minute protest and return to class after it is over.  If they don't return to class, they could be disciplined, he said.

The demonstrations will be different at each school, and some students in middle school will be gathering in the hallway and locking arms, he said.

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash and School Board President Barbara Nevergold said age-appropriate guidance is being provided to principals at the elementary and secondary level.

"We encourage students to express their views and we encourage proactive civic engagement on this issue," they said in a letter to the community. "Be assured that any planned events will take place under the watchfulness of BPS Security and the Buffalo Police Department."

In the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, Kenmore West will participate, while Kenmore East plans to take part in the national student walkout planned April 20, to mark the 19th year since the shootings at Columbine High School, said Patrick Fanelli, community relations coordinator.

Students plan to wear the school colors of Douglas High School, burgundy and silver. Students will go to the auditorium, where a brief statement will be read, and a slide show will highlight all 17 victims, with a brief biography on each one. There also will be a moment of silence for each victim.

The district wants the demonstration to be kept inside for safety reasons, he said.

"It's entirely student-run," he added.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told The Buffalo News the walkout can be a way that students reflect their opinions.

"I've encouraged districts to look at making that a teachable moment," she said.

She said students should know why they are walking out, not just because they want to have 17 minutes out of class.

"I think that's an opportunity we have to work with our students to understand that," she said.

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