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EDITORIAL: When schools facilitate Wednesday's protests — permitting disruption of school activities — they will set a precedent

By: The Gazette editorial board
March 12, 2018 Updated: March 13, 2018 at 3:11 pm
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A nationwide school walkout Wednesday, to oppose school violence, raises a question. What if churches promote similar disruptions, so public school students can pray for peace? Visualize a walkout for Jesus.

In a Gazette news article by Debbie Kelley, Cheyenne Mountain D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper said he met with student organizers about logistics of the anti-violence protest, promoted by Women's March Youth EMPOWER in a national call to action.

Although Cooper discussed details with protesters, he clarified the school neither sponsors nor endorses the event. It only offers "support" for the walkout. Hmmm.

"But I do feel it is incumbent upon us to support our kids and their efforts, if they truly feel so strongly about something," Cooper said.

The superintendent promised no students will face consequences for participation or nonparticipation — even though it is not a school-sanctioned activity.

"I am impressed by and appreciate the maturity, thought and planning that our kids have put into this event and their willingness to work with the administration to ensure a well-organized, safe and inclusive event," Cooper said.

Colorado Springs D-11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich defended students marching from schools as an exercise of free speech.

"We are proud that some of our students want to exercise their First Amendment rights to express their views on this important topic," Gledich wrote in a letter to parents. "When students advocate for an issue they feel passionate about, it can be a powerful learning experience. We also recognize that some students may not want to participate in a walkout and would prefer to stay in class. We want to ensure that all students feel safe and respected, no matter what they choose to do."

We hear lots of other school administrators trying to distance themselves from the protest, while offering glowing support. It raises an inevitable question.

"Imagine when, in a few weeks, Christian students 'feel so strongly about something' like prayer that they organize a walkout during class time for a 15-minute prayer," said radio talk show host Jeff Crank, president of Aegis Strategic consulting firm, in an email to a lawyer. "Will Superintendent Cooper meet with student organizers about logistics? Will he ensure that they will face no consequences for participation or declining participation? In order to uphold the Constitution, he must treat both situations equally and ensure that Christian students who want to pray are treated as equally as students who want to protest."

He is correct. Schools that support Wednesday's political activism must offer no less support for other walkouts.

Ask the ACLU.

"Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other willing student listeners," explains the ACLU's Joint Statement of Current Law on Religion in the Public Schools on ACLU.org. "In the classroom students have the right to pray quietly except when required to be actively engaged in school activities. In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations."

In other words, the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court treat secular, political, and religious speech the same when expressed by students in public schools. Administrators must remain content-neutral when choosing to tolerate or reject demonstrations by individual students or groups.

They don't have to tolerate free speech when students are "required to be actively engaged in school activities."

When schools facilitate Wednesday's protests — permitting disruption of school activities — they will set a precedent regarding other forms of nonviolent demonstration.

If Wednesday's protesters get to disrupt class, so do students with messages less appealing to administrators. Otherwise, schools engage in content-based discrimination.

Students love to walk out of schools. If walkouts catch on, superintendents and principals might regret facilitating Wednesday's disruption.

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