State's schools urge caution amid calls for walkouts

Posted: March 13, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

National calls for a student walkout on Wednesday, the one-month anniversary of the shooting deaths of 17 students and adults at a Parkland, Fla., high school, have Arkansas school leaders reaching out to student groups to urge caution or alternative activities, if not opposition.

The Women's March Youth Empower and the Advancement Project are among the organizations nationwide promoting the #Enough National School Walkout to both honor those who were killed by an armed intruder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and to protest what some students and adults say is a general inaction against gun violence in schools.

Mike Poore, the superintendent of the Little Rock School District, the state's largest district with as many as 24,000 students, has scheduled a joint news conference with the Little Rock Police Department for this morning to talk about the district's efforts to work with student leaders and to keep the campuses safe.

Poore's news conference comes the same day as the first meeting of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's newly appointed School Safety Commission. The commission, chaired by Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute of the University of Arkansas System, will assess the security of Arkansas' schools and make recommendations if necessary on enhancing safety and security at campuses. The commission's initial report is due to the governor on July 1.

In a letter to parents dated last Friday, Poore acknowledged the heightened anxiety in the wake of the recent school violence. He also cited the importance of educating students about the right to peacefully demonstrate differing views in a democratic society.

"Challenging times create the need for us to all work together," Poore wrote. "Our principals at each secondary school have worked with their student leadership teams to create as safe an environment as possible to conduct their protest, should they choose to participate. This collaboration is healthy and most importantly, it creates the best-case scenario for us to ensure safety for all of our students."

EStem Public Charter High School staff members and students have set concrete parameters for Wednesday.

Students and staff members have a designated location on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus for those who want to participate in a short demonstration, eStem Chief Executive Officer John Bacon said Monday.

"Some students will carry signs, and the intent is to achieve more of a 'silent' protest against gun violence in schools rather than a 'rally' type environment," Bacon said. "The activity is optional and should last about 10-15 minutes. Those students and faculty members who choose not to participate will be allowed to remain in the school building."

The Cabot School District "is working with student leaders at our secondary schools to allow students to demonstrate their beliefs and freedoms in constructive ways, at appropriate times with adequate supervision," a statement on the district's website states.

"At the same time, our focus will be on teaching and learning while ensuring a safe campus and learning environment," the Cabot statement says. "We want to make it clear, school will proceed as scheduled and students will be held accountable for missing any class time or classwork per school policy on absences and tardies."

Leaders in other schools and districts contacted Monday were also aware of the national call for a demonstration and had talked to their student organizations and faculties about possible responses.

In the cases of the Fort Smith, Sheridan and Dover school districts, there weren't any known plans for walkouts, spokesmen for the systems said.

"Principals and assistant principals did reach out to student organizations to see if there were ways that schools could make the best use of an opportunity such as this," Zena Featherstone Marshall, a spokesman for the Fort Smith district, said in an emailed statement. "To date they have not been told of any student groups organizing activities during instructional time."

However, the district leaders know that a student demonstration is still not out of the question, Marshall said. The district's assistant superintendent for secondary education forwarded guidance from the Arkansas School Boards Association to the Fort Smith campus administrators saying that students can demonstrate as long as it is peaceful and not obscene.

And, while students should be able to demonstrate without fear of discipline for their participation, they may be counted absent or tardy if they miss class, according to the guidance sent to the principals.

The Sheridan district "supports students' rights to express their views in a peaceful manner," Lauren Goins, director of communications and recruitment for that district, said Monday.

"At this time, we are not aware of any students who plan to participate in a walkout or protest," Goins added. "However, on Wednesday at 10 a.m., our secondary principals do plan to address the student body to discuss student safety and to honor the victims of school shootings."

In the Dover district the high school principal has encouraged students to let her know if they do plan to participate, so that they can work together to do so safely, Tasha Ivey, the district's director of public relations, said Monday.

"Our district has been working closely with local law enforcement to implement new procedures and plan for future crisis trainings that will better protect our most precious resources -- our students," Ivey said.

In the Pulaski County Special School District, a couple of high schools have planned indoor student assemblies, district spokesman Deborah Roush said. At Robinson High School, in particular, student leaders have been advertising for financial donations that will be sent to support families of the Florida victims.

Vernell Bowen, the superintendent of the Diocese of Little Rock's parochial schools, said Monday she has been collecting information from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on what might be an appropriate response to the school violence and call for a student action.

"Rather than do a walkout, let's just concentrate on what we really do and pray," Bowen said, adding that the conference of bishops has offered some prepared prayers for the occasion. "That's the direction we are taking, praying for the people and praying for the changes that might need to be happening for the benefit of everybody."

Metro on 03/13/2018