At 10 a.m. March 14, high school students in Flathead County are planning to take part in a national walkout to honor the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
While some schools around the nation are not consenting to the walkout and are planning to discipline students, local public high schools are allowing the students to have a platform to participate without penalty if students do not violate school rules or policies.
All schools have policies and consequences regarding demonstrations that interrupt or disrupt classes or the overall operation of school. Some student handbooks also outline students rights such as freedom of speech as long as it does not abuse the rights of others or disrupt school.
“What’s important to us is to create a non-disruptive, safe environment for students to share their voice and to be participants in a democracy,” Whitefish School District Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said. “Our whole purpose, and our whole mission as public educators is to create citizens. The only way we can do that is allowing our students to have a voice in safe and appropriate ways and creating those environments to allow that to happen.”
March 14 marks the one-month anniversary of the Florida school shooting on Valentine’s Day. The duration of the walkout will be 17 minutes — one minute to honor each murder victim.
Whether two students, or dozens, the high schoolers have taken initiative to work with administrators in planning.
According to the Women’s March Youth Empower #Enough National School Walkout initiative, in addition to remembering the 17 victims, the focus is to “demand Congress pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”
Administrators and student organizers in high schools throughout the valley say they are not taking stances on gun control, or politics, rather focusing on commemorating students killed and survivors of the school shooting and school safety.
“We have been approached by students and parents supportive of the walkouts,” Glacier High School Principal Callie Langohr stated in a safety and security update emailed to families on Feb. 26. “As a result of feedback, a group of students, staff and administrators are putting together a plan for the March 14 walkout so it is a positive learning experience for everyone. The school will not be taking an official position on current political issues such as gun control, etc.”
The email continued: “There will be a school-wide ceremony honoring the 17 people killed in Parkland, FL. in addition to other activities. The finalized plan will be sent to staff, students and parents. The 17 minute walkout is voluntary and without penalty. Students will return to class at the conclusion of the ceremony and regular attendance rules apply after the ceremony.”
Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said events at Flathead and Glacier high schools will be organized. Flatau said it’s important for schools to keep an open dialogue with students on issues impacting their lives.
“It’s not going to be everybody walks out and stands outside for 17 minutes. It’s going to be an orchestrated, thought-out opportunity for our students to reflect, to dialogue with our staff, and be productive,” Flatau said.
Other area schools have had similar experiences and taken similar stances.
“We’re a public education institution; our purpose is not to take one side,” said Davis Schmidt.
“However, we recognize our students need to have an opportunity to have a voice, so we’re creating that opportunity and safe environment for them,” she said.
Columbia Falls School District Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said he has received many calls regarding the Florida shooting, subsequent events and school safety.
“It’s about the lives of young people. It’s about losing too many kids around the country. That’s how we’re approaching it. We’re taking a view about students — it’s about students and student safety and the lives of young people that are wasted,” Bradshaw said. “This is not about politics. This is about the lives of young people.”
Columbia Falls High School event organizers — senior Kathleen Helton and sophomore Kailey Schrader — plan for participating students to sing “Amazing Grace,” gather outside and allow students to share thoughts in addition to the moment of silence as victims are named.
“All we’re trying to do is honor students whose lives were lost on February 14,” Helton said.
At Whitefish, the student council is taking the lead in working with administrators, and their plans are taking shape, according to Whitefish High School Principal Kerry Drown.
Staff’s participation will be in a supervisory capacity in and outside the school for participating and non-participating students.
“We have an obligation to ensure the safety of our students and that includes supervision,” Davis Schmidt said.
It’s a fine line for students who want to speak out on gun violence as it relates to mass shootings, student safety and student lives and not be interpreted as anti-gun statements. Yet, the two are linked in a politically charged backdrop.
Bigfork High School senior Riley Hoveland said she is planning to turn in a pre-excused absence form to participate in the national walkout during the school day. As she started talking with staff about what to plan, she said teachers advised her to use the time as a memorial rather than a protest.
“That’s hard for me to do,” Hoveland said, because of her stance on comprehensive gun control. “A very small percentage of students and the community lean the way I do.”
But she said that the walkout will remain a memorial, not a protest that would turn off others from participating.
“I don’t want to see a protest. I want anyone of all ages and political beliefs to be there in support of victims and those victims’ families,” Hoveland said
For Glacier High School parent Deb Mason, the line between memorial and political agenda is blurred.
Glacier’s event has been registered by a student organizer on the Women’s March website.
Mason is concerned that although schools are stating no official position on political issues such as gun control, there is an appearance of doing just that by allowing students to participate in the National School Walkout demonstration during school hours.
Mason voiced her support of students to protest whether for or against gun control — but stressed it should be done outside of the school day.
She suggested in an email to administrators that schools could have chosen to hold events on a different day or outside of school hours, “which can have a positive influence free from political agendas.”
She wondered if the school’s involvement in the national walkout will open a Pandora’s box of future issues regarding demonstrations.
“Whose rights are going to be trampled on when students want to participate in another movement that the administrators or school board doesn’t,” Mason said. “Once we open that door, how do you close it?”
Yet, schools are choosing to move forward.
After decades of mass shootings, why are Montana schools choosing to participate in this way at this moment?
“I think people are getting to a point where we’ve got to do something,” Bradshaw said. “Believe me, I understand the Second Amendment. This is more about student safety in my mind. It’s about kids being able to go to school without having to worry. It’s about parents dropping kids off at school not having to worry.”
Helton noted, “I think we’re finally having a moment that this is something that shouldn’t be happening anymore and we’ll take action. It’s not something that’s been ignored, but it’s gaining momentum.”
Helton’s hope for March 14? “I guess, open people’s eyes. Start discussions on ‘What can I do. How do I feel about it?’”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.