Sumter School District students planning to participate in National Walkout Day on Wednesday to advocate for gun control could face disciplinary action according to the district code of conduct if they leave class.
The 17-minute walkout, expected to be practiced at high schools throughout the county, is in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and school staff members were shot and killed.
Demonstrations have sprung up on school campuses across the country since the mass shooting last month, but Wednesday will be the first coordinated national effort to honor the victims and advocate for gun control. Each minute of the walkout is dedicated to one of the 17 victims.
In response to interest in the walkout, school administrators in the country are trying to figure out how to let students exercise their First Amendment rights while not disrupting school or pulling themselves into the raging debate over gun control.
Shelly Galloway, spokeswoman for Sumter School District, wrote in a statement that district administration is aware that National Walkout Day is planned for Wednesday and that supporting students' academic and social emotional needs is a top priority.
She stated the district also prioritizes maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment for all.
When asked if students would face disciplinary action for leaving class on Wednesday, Galloway responded, "The students will have to follow the parameters that are established by the student government and approved by administration. If students do not follow the parameters, they could face disciplinary action in accordance with the Sumter School District Code of Conduct."
According to the district's code of conduct, cutting activities, cutting class, cutting school, leaving class and tardiness could result in removal from class, in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension if the behavior continues.
Generally, the ACLU has been advising students that because they are required to go to school by law, administrators can discipline them for unexcused absences. But the ACLU also told students in an online training video that administrators can't punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their demonstrations.
"We encourage all South Carolina educators and administrators to respect our students’ constitutional rights and celebrate their activism,” said Shaundra Young Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, in a statement "And not only are these young people’s actions admirable, they are protected by the First Amendment."
"The Supreme Court ruled long ago that civil rights do not end at the schoolhouse gate. Therefore, schools have no legal basis to punish students for protest differently for protest than they do for other reasons
“We don’t only send our children to school to learn math and writing or to get into college. We send them to school to prepare to become engaged public citizens."
High school principals in Sumter have met with their student government leaders to talk about ways students can express themselves in a peaceful and positive manner and still adhere to the code of conduct, Galloway wrote.
"We respect and support the right of our students to advocate for causes that are important to them," Galloway wrote, "and welcome the opportunity to work with any student or student group to discuss appropriate and creative ways to do so while at school."
She added that anything the students plan is not mandatory for all students.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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