Schools across the country and across Oregon are preparing for student protests this week on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The attack that left 17 students and school employees dead on Feb. 14 has galvanized students, education advocates and gun control activists. It's already led to legislative changes in Florida. It’s also turned concerned teenagers into national activists against school shootings.
Oregon is no stranger to the tragedy of school shootings, dating back to the Thurston High School shooting in 1998, the more recent shootings at Reynolds High in 2014, and at Umpqua Community College a year later.
OPB reached out to a dozen school districts across Oregon and found a range of approaches, not always in keeping with the typical politics of the surrounding communities.
Many school districts warn that public employees can face discipline if they use time or resources at work to promote political causes. Many Oregon administrators are framing the walkouts as “unsanctioned” actions led by students. But in other districts, like Portland, officials are backing activities on March 14 as learning opportunities.
Portland Encourages Walkouts
Portland Public Schools has a long history of student activism, including anti-Trump rallies in the last year and protests going back decades over district policies. PPS officials released statements last week attempting to clarify the district’s approach to student walkouts:
The District's position is that these are not protests, but organized school activities. These are efforts to anticipate and safely manage the students who wish to show solidarity with students in Florida. The communications do not say that these are statements against gun violence. These are seen as teachable moments for 17 minutes during the school day, with an opportunity for discussion afterward. School safety is an issue every day.”
By Monday, though, Portland Public Schools' message had evolved and still seemed somewhat at odds with what at least one PPS school was saying.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said he "encourages student-centered and developmentally appropriate school-wide activities." The district's FAQ emailed to Portland parents on Monday continues, saying, "The district is encouraging schools to hold a visible all-school activities [sic] for 17 minutes."
The FAQ also supports public employees taking part in the demonstrations during the school day.
"Schools are encouraged to participate, including teachers, given the 'teachable moment' that exists to focus on a dialogue about the importance of safe schools," it read.
The message follows individual school communications sent out last week that also take a stance in support of student walkouts. Principal John Ferraro at Beverly Cleary School (a K-8 school in Northeast Portland) sent out a message to that school community, after one had already been drafted and circulated by older students from the school’s “equity team.” Ferraro told parents that administrators felt, “It is important to hear their voice and provide them a platform.”
Ferraro continued, “That being said, what we are really looking at on the 14th is more of a Call to Action for our district and state legislators to really take school safety seriously and hopefully shake loose some dollars to tighten up school security.”
The messages from Portland Public Schools signal support for employees taking part in the 17-minute walkout, though state and national teachers unions have warned members that political activity during school hours can result in discipline from the district or regulating agencies, like the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission in Oregon.
Eugene's Tougher Stance
The approach in Eugene is quite different from Portland's, even though the two cities tend to align politically.
Officials with Eugene’s largest school district went further in their warnings to students, saying that a student walking out of school could receive an “unexcused absence.”
"No matter what the topic, our school and our district cannot condone walkouts or other demonstrations that disrupt the learning environment," said officials from the Eugene 4J district.
Supporters of the March 14 protest frame the effort as intended to draw attention to the ongoing risks from gun violence that students face at schools . The messages from Eugene frame the potential discipline related to student walkouts, also, as based on school safety.
"The safest place for students to be during school hours is in the school building," said the message from Eugene. "If students engage in a walkout they are leaving the supervised school environment."
Salem-Keizer And Hood River Take Middle Ground
Other school districts have emphasized the complicated and potentially confusing laws and rules that govern political activity at schools. On one hand, students retain their rights to free speech when they're at school. But, school administrators can take steps and level discipline at students who disrupt the school day — though they're not allowed to mete out tougher punishments based on political messaging.
Administrators in Hood River and Salem-Keizer are taking a more measured approach than Portland, giving students room to express themselves while keeping a rein on what they can do.
The Hood River County schools got a degree of national attention last week, when high school sophomore Eva Jones testified to a U.S. Senate committee about risks from gun violence at school.
“It is infuriating to have our lives valued less than a collectible,” Jones told a group of Democratic senators. “We will not accept this. We are sick of living like this and I can assure you, we will be relentless.”
Jones is helping organize a countywide school walkout in the Columbia Gorge district. Administrators at the Hood River County schools have responded by sending detailed messages outlining how they intend to handle the protests.
Administrators issued “student protest guidelines for staff” on March 7. The message is nuanced — supporting students’ free speech rights while also articulating where schools can lay down limits.
“Peaceful and time-limited walkout participation will not be suppressed,” it said. “However, disruptive or disorderly behavior, leaving campus, and/or not returning to class in a timely fashion, will result in disciplinary consequences, as determined by school administrators.”
Oregon's second-largest school district, Salem-Keizer, is taking a similarly nuanced approach to the walkouts — that students can protest within limits.
"Students who participate or do not participate will not be penalized, but students who leave campus or do not return to class will receive unexcused absences," said a message from Salem-Keizer.
Depending on the individual student’s situation, such a disciplinary step can jeopardize participation in activities like athletic contests.
Hood River and Salem-Keizer take a pretty hard line with their teaching staffs, again, very different from Portland's stance.
“Staff may not participate in political demonstrations on work time or participate (or encourage others to participate) in walkouts or other disruptions to instruction,” the Hood River message said.
The Hood River message includes language from the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, mentioning possible discipline from TSPC.
“A walkout is not a school- or district-sponsored event,” said a message that Salem-Keizer officials shared with school staff.
“We cannot encourage students to participate,” it said.
A number of school districts in Oregon are preparing for March 14 by supporting learning activities inside public schools, focused on school safety and security, so that students don’t walk out on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting.
“We are not planning a walkout of any kind, but if appropriate we will do ‘something’ of educational value,” said Pendleton Superintendent Chris Fritsch in an email to OPB.
“Our high school is doing an activity called ‘Pick Your 17’ in which students will select 17 acts of kindness to commit to doing each day for 17 days,” Fritsch said, as an example. “Our middle school is doing something similar.”
Fritsch said the district is also working with the East Oregonian newspaper to publish student work “on the school violence topic.”
Some parts of Oregon are hoping their students don’t walk out. In Medford, the largest school district in southern Oregon, officials saw students protest on Friday, March 2.
“I have not heard of any additional walkout plans here in Medford,” said public relations specialist Natalie Hurd.
The district released a “Message on Student Safety” in anticipation of that walkout, but it didn’t discuss protests or walkouts. Instead, it outlined law enforcement partnerships with the Medford police and Jackson County sheriffs and discussed mental health supports in place for students.