In anticipation of the national student walkout happening on March 14, 2018, the ACLU of Rhode Island has sent a letter to all school district superintendents in the State reminding them of students’ rights on the matter. Scheduled for 10am that day, the national student event is a planned protest of legislative inaction in addressing the problem of gun violence. The walkout will last for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 students killed in the Parkland, FL shooting a month earlier.
Amid national news reports that some school districts in the country are planning on punishing students more severely for this activity than for other types of unexcused absence, the ACLU of RI letter states: “While the ACLU recognizes that schools do have the discretion to discipline students who are absent from school without permission, it would clearly be unconstitutional to impose greater punishment on these students for their walkout than for any other departure from campus without permission.”
The letter highlights a 1995 decision on this specific issue from the RI Commissioner of Education, which held: “A student who engages in legitimate First Amendment activity, such as leaving class to peacefully protest…should not receive more punishment than a student who leaves class to engage in non-First Amendment activity, such as going to a store or to an eating establishment.” Numerous court decisions since then have confirmed this basic point.
The letter goes on to remind superintendents that RI law prohibits out-of-school suspensions as a punishment for absenteeism.
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “This short walkout is a demonstration of students putting their education into practice through respectful civic engagement. We trust that school officials will respect the First Amendment principles involved when deciding how to respond to this peaceful protest.”