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Schools prepare for shooting anniversaries

By Sue Loughlin

The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute



Area school officials say they have discussed how to respond if local students participate in Wednesday’s national remembrance of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings. 

National groups have issued calls for students to walk out of school that day, which is the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting. Another walk-out has been called for on April 20, the 19th anniversary of shootings in Columbine, Colorado. 

Local superintendents said they are aware of the calls for walkouts and have discussed how to deal with it with staff and students. None are encouraging school absence but are not being more specific about their plans for dealing with it, citing safety concerns.

Fayette County Schools Superintendent Scott Collins said that, “our first priority with our students and staff in the Fayette County School Corporation is safety.

“I will share that our principals have talked with student-leaders and staff at both CMS (Connersville Middle School) and CHS (Connersville High School) about this nationally organized demonstration. Our goal is to help support student learning as good citizens, when it comes to such political and/or national issues, to make informed decisions based on the democratic principles that have made our country great. The foundation of which is based on our freedoms in our Bill of Rights.

“Subsequently, we must do so following the policies and guidelines established by our state and school board to ensure students are safe during each school day.”

At Western Wayne School Corp. in Cambridge City, assistant superintendent George Philhower said the administration has been working with students on a plan in which students can honor the victims of the shootings.

“We have been trying to be as proactive as possible,” Philhower said Monday. “We have spent a lot of time talking to our kids and we feel like we’ve got a plan that they helped us come up with that will allow our students to show their support for those who have been affected by these tragedies but at the same time, everybody’s safety is taken care of and that there is minimal disruption to the school day.”

At Union County High School in Liberty, Superintendent Chris Winchell said, “our administration at the building level has been working with student leaders to discuss this topic and we are going to maintain a regular school day where instruction is not interrupted, but we are also going to be sensitive to kids who feel like they need to express their thoughts based on their own moral compass.

“We are not in the political business, so we are not taking a political position on this event, nor do I think schools should ever take a position on any kind of event. With that being said, though, I do think that we have an obligation to help our kids critically think about controversial issues, in particular our kids who are young adults and who are going to be the next generation of young voters. ... Any time items like this surface, whether it’s locally, whether it’s nationally, whether it’s internationally, it’s a teachable moment for our students.”

The Indiana School Boards Association issued a memo last week to school districts advising them of legal issues in their response to possible student walkouts.

“School corporations should begin determining how the walkouts will be handled locally and whether or not alternatives to walkouts will be made available. Whatever school officials decide to do, the decision should be communicated to students and parents as well as the details of how local policies and procedures on discipline and attendance will be applied.” 

Lisa Tanselle, an ISBA attorney, said in an interview, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1969 decision of Tinker v. Des Moines School District that schools “can regulate speech that is disruptive. … A school corporation can take the position that leaving a classroom without permission of the teacher is disruptive.” 

“Rather than the students walking out of the building where [their] safety is of heightened concern, perhaps the school administrators can provide a time and place for students to go inside of the building, i.e., gym, auditorium, for a discussion of their concerns and issues,” the memo states.

“Keep in mind, the school administrators must be neutral in supporting student opinions. School administrators will have to provide opportunities for all viewpoints to be heard. This may take place in the same assembly or a separate assembly may need to be made available for other viewpoints.”

Federal courts have ruled teachers and other school employees are not protected by the Free Speech clause while they are on duty and working for the public school, the ISBA states. “Courts have considered these employees as public officials and concluded they are subject to the same neutrality requirements as school officials.”

Franklin County School Superintendent Debbie Howell was called for comments but did not respond by the News-Examiner’s deadline.