The students and staff in School Administrative District 13 have been warned by administrators that participation in a March 14 national walkout to protest gun violence will result in disciplinary action.

Superintendent Virginia Rebar, who oversees schools in Moscow and Bingham, posted a letter to the district’s website advising students who might decide to take part in the event that they will be marked as “absent without permission” and “will be subject to normal disciplinary procedures.”

Rebar said in an interview Thursday that she had not heard of any students planning on participating in the event. However, on Monday she received a legal advisement from the district’s attorneys, which prompted her to call a special school board meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue.

Virginia Rebar wrote: “Scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the District.”

“As a school it’s not within our role to promote political viewpoints,” Rebar said.

The nationwide walkout was planned following a Feb.14 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At 10 a.m., on the one-month anniversary of the shooting, participants will walk outside of their schools for 17 minutes “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.”

A youth affiliate of Women’s March organized the event and has listed 1,855 planned school walkouts across the country, including Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, Hampden Academy, Lewiston High School, Edward Little High School in Auburn, Casco Bay High School in Portland, and several others.

The penalty for participating in the walkout will be the same for a student missing class, Rebar said. She didn’t know specifically what type of disciplinary action would be taken because the school’s response would depend on each student’s record.

Penalties for teachers who take part would be “totally in keeping with our bargaining agreement,” Rebar said.

The pre-emptive warning was the result of a special meeting Tuesday during which officials raised concerns about giving preference to one ideology over another as well as the safety of students.

“The First Amendment prohibits governmental entities from viewpoint discrimination. Students and staff having views differing from those of the Walkout would have to have an equal opportunity to express their views. Scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the District,” Rebar wrote in the letter.

“Students and staff do not have a First Amendment right to disrupt or interrupt the school day for political advocacy,” she added.

She also thought it was counterproductive to allow students to have an announced presence outside of locked classrooms and buildings.

“Our first and foremost concern is the safety of our students,” Rebar said.

Earlier in the school year, while the people across the country debated over whether kneeling during the national anthem is an acceptable form of protest, the SAD 13 school board put out a similar pre-emptive message advising students against the practice.

Under the advisement of the school board, Rebar said, she asked students to do what they’ve done traditionally as a school during the anthem, which is to stand.

She said students who did not want to stand were asked to provide a note from a parent so that they could leave and go to a separate location.

MORE SCHOOL RESPONSES

Administrators at other school districts in central Maine also are pondering how to handle potential student walkouts on March 14.

Peter Thiboutot, the assistant superintendent of the Waterville-based Alternative Organizational Structure 92, said there have been several students in the district who expressed interest in participating in the walkout.

“We are talking with our administrative team about how to best allow students to express their viewpoints and be respectful of everyone,” Thiboutot said.

He said they are in the process of drafting a plan and are asking students for input on what it should include.

“We want to know how we can make this a learning experience for everyone,” he said.

Michael Hammer, the superintendent of Regional School Unit 19, said students at Nokomis Regional High School will not be punished for taking part in the walkout.

“At this point we’re not going to tell them they can’t,” Hammer said.

The president of the senior class approached Hammer this week about plans of a more organized protest that would include student speakers.

Hammer said they will block off some space outside for the walkout and will have police present to ensure the safety of the students.

Students and staff who do not want to participate in the 17-minute demonstration will be able to remain inside the school, Hammer said.

Colleges and universities around the country also have been weighing in on how they will handle applicants who have been suspended or disciplined in response to their participation in the walkout, as well as non-violent protests in general, during their high school careers.

Colby College put out a statement Saturday stating applicants “will not be adversely affected in the admissions process if they have engaged in peaceful, respectful protests, such as those occurring now on the issue of gun violence, even if they have received school discipline for those actions.”

“Colby College values freedom of expression and encourages thoughtful, peaceful dissent,” the statement said.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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