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Students around Colorado Springs sending a message with planned walkouts Wednesday

March 12, 2018 Updated: March 14, 2018 at 9:04 am
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Shortly after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Deanna Cooper sat on the floor of a Coronado High School classroom with her back pressed against a wall.

The senior squeezed her eyes shut and took a few deep breaths.

The school was undergoing a "shelter in place" drill, an exercise intended to prepare students and staff for an active shooter in the building or some other threat.

"I couldn't help but think, 'Are we going to be next?'"

When she leaves class on Wednesday to participate in a national student walkout against school violence, Deanna said she intends to send this message: "We refuse to be the next school."

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Hundreds of students across several school districts in the Pikes Peak region are planning to walk out of school on Wednesday, the one-month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 staff and students dead.

The Women's March Youth EMPOWER group, an offshoot of the progressive Women's March, which advocates for rights of women, immigrants, health care users and others, issued the March 14 call to action.

Poster for Coronado High School  

At 10 a.m. in every time zone, organizers are encouraging students and other supporters to walk out for 17 minutes, symbolizing one minute for each person killed during the Florida mass shooting.

At least one local school district, Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, in which up to 75 percent of students are connected to military families, is taking a different approach with sanctioned events about school safety and a chance for students to submit ideas about solving school violence.

The protest, according to organizers, is aimed at legislators and calls for gun-reform policies.

"Enough is enough. We want to make our voices heard," said Maya Berry, who's organizing the event for students at Palmer High School in downtown Colorado Springs.

Some 200 students are expected to gather on the sidewalks around Palmer's main school building at Nevada and Platte avenues.

"We hope to get the word out, to tell our government that we're done being afraid in school," Maya said. "We're walking out to show we're tired of it."

During the demonstration, students will hold signs and be joined by other supporters, she said, such as parents, downtown workers, perhaps college students.

"I am proud of Maya's dedication to change and making schools safe," said her dad, Chris Berry.

Going to school has been scary lately, Maya said. Many schools in the Colorado Springs area have received threats in the past month; three El Paso County teens are facing felony charges stemming from school threats.

Palmer High was placed on lockdown last Monday for what Colorado Springs School District 11 officials said was a possible threat.

"We were stuck in second period for about an hour," Maya said. "Most of us didn't know what was going on. I was scared to think about how that could happen so quickly. Fortunately, they got it taken care of."

Disciplinary measures expected to be light

Some superintendents elsewhere, such as in Houston, have threatened to suspend students who walk out in observance.

Colorado Springs D-11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich sent a message to parents, saying if a walkout occurs in D-11 schools, classes will continue on a normal schedule. Elementary and middle school students will need their parents to check out students if they plan on leaving the grounds.

Palmer High students potentially could receive a tardy mark, Maya said, unless they bring a note from a parent to excuse them.

Should a walkout occur, "Staff will be in attendance in a supervisory role to ensure student safety," Gledich's message said.

"We are proud that some of our students want to exercise their First Amendment rights to express their views on this important topic," he wrote. "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."

Maya said she thought the letter was interesting.

"I'm glad they're not going to actively try to stop us," she said. "But they're preparing for it, too."

Under the First Amendment, students have the right to speak out, distribute fliers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school - as long as they don't disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school's content-neutral policies, according to Josh Bell of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C.

What counts as "disruptive" varies, he said, but a school disagreeing with a position or thinking student speech is controversial or in "bad taste" is not enough to qualify.

Courts have upheld students' rights to wear an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion and a shirt supporting the LGBTQ community, he said.

A school can prohibit wearing hats - because that rule is not based on what the hats say - but it can't prohibit wearing only pink pussycat hats or pro-NRA hats.

Schools can discipline students for walking out, Bell said, but not more harshly than normal because of the political nature behind the action.

Coronado's walkout will be held on school grounds, in the courtyard, an outdoor area that connects buildings.

Alexa Huesgen Hobbs, who is organizing the walkout with Deanna Cooper, said she talked to the school principal, to make him aware of the plans.

"We didn't ask for his permission but notified him, and he said there's nothing we can do to stop you," she said. "Administration is not supporting us, but there isn't any backlash either. We don't think there will be any disciplinary action for participants."

An unexcused absence or tardy is possible, Deanna said.

During the event at Coronado, the names of the 17 students and staff killed in Florida last month will be read, and speakers are planned. Students will be offered signs, voter registration information and how to contact state and national legislators.

Students at Rampart High in Academy School District 20 and Cheyenne Mountain High in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 also are planning walkouts.

Cheyenne Mountain D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper said he's met with student organizers about logistics.

He's quick to point out that the district isn't sponsoring or endorsing any facet of the event.

"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.

No students will face consequences for participation or declining participation, he added.

The action is unusual, Cooper said; nothing like it has occurred in his 17 years of working in D-12.

"But we are clearly experiencing vastly different times and circumstances than we ever have before," he said. "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.

"I believe our kids are going about this the right way, and because of this, I think this can be a good and authentic learning experience for them."

Not everyone supports the action

Reaction to the event has been mixed, say student organizers.

At Coronado, "A lot of people are passionate and super into it, and then we have the other side, people who aren't enthusiastic and have gone out of their way to say they're not going to do it," Deanna said.

Palmer students also are split on the issue, Maya said.

"We have armed security now - that's fairly new, it happened last year," she said. "I personally don't want to be around guns, but some kids are like, maybe we should arm some teachers.

"The main idea is it's time to stand up and make a difference. We are the next generation of voters, and this is what matters now."

Some critics believe students are being used as political pawns in the controversial debate over gun laws and Second Amendment rights.

Falcon School District 49 parent Richard Winn told The Gazette that a recent letter he received from the Falcon Middle School principal, saying it would "honor the right of students" to protest, is misguided.

"These young students are not activists looking for a march," he said. "The school wants to use them as activists."

Fountain-Fort Carson D-8, which has several schools on Fort Carson, is avoiding political controversy by taking a different approach.

"We're holding events and conversations around safety issues at the high schools and middle schools," said spokeswoman Christy McGee.

At Fountain-Fort Carson High, students will be able to submit ideas on addressing social, emotional and physical safety, and speakers will discuss proactive conflict management, dangerous behaviors, using the Safe2Tell hotline and creating a positive school climate.

"We want to give kids the opportunity to voice how they can make a difference for students," said Principal Patrick Krumholz.

Like other schools, Fountain-Fort Carson High has had a few threats of violence this semester, he said.

"They were hoaxes, and we were able to find out who did it and deal with it appropriately," Krumholz said.

School leaders will consider instituting some of the ideas students generate, he said.

Students also will be able to walk out onto the athletic fields as a show of solidarity and remembrance for those who lost their lives in the Florida school shooting, McGee said.

Fountain Middle School students will watch a video on how they can help ensure school safety and can sign a pledge to each do their part.

"It's a joint effort with the understanding from the school and district perspective that we know nationally this date and time has risen up, and we went to the students and said how can we make this a more productive time for you?" McGee said. "The point is to get your voice heard on the issues, how can that actually happen."

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