Parents concerned about politicized student walkout

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SCHOOL SAFETY —Molly Hill, a Norway parent, reads part of a prepared statement from Aranka Matolscy of Norway asking for participants to join a non-political group she has formed to review safety and security in the Oxford Hills School District schools.

PARIS — SAD 17 Director Natalie Brown said she believes the administration was “remiss” in not bringing directors into the planning conversation about a student walkout that subsequently turned into a political anti-gun rally at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School on March 15.

Brown addressed her fellow directors and administration at the end of the board’s March 19 meeting after some 50 concerned parents, town officials, teachers and others showed up, many to ask their own questions about the perceived lack of communication surrounding the student’s  memorial  for last month’s school shooting victims in Parkland, Florida.

STUDENT VIEWS — Middle School teacher Joe Cummings told parents at the March 19 school board meeting that they must respect the opinions of students as “thoughtful” and “heartfelt.”

Brown said not only should the board have been part of the decision-making process on how, or if, the student walkout would occur, but the community should have been kept better informed.

Brown, who represents West Paris, said she is very concerned about the administration allowing the walkout to occur because it could set precedence for other groups to use school grounds for political protest.

“We have now lost control,” she said. “We could be charged with discrimination (if the board deny access for a political group.)”

But not all agreed with her.

Lewis Williams of Hebron said the administration took the right steps in providing the students with a safe spot for their 17-minute memorial.

“The kids made more of it than they asked for,” he said of the group of 33 students who continued the walkout as a formal protest following the return to class of some 150 students who staged a silent 17 minutes in honor of those slain in Parkland, Florida.

Although scheduled to coincide with the March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER national student walkout to protest Congress inaction in response to the gun violence, the walkout was rescheduled to March 15 because of the most-recent nor’easter.

About 150 to 200 of the 1,100 student body at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School assembled at the bus loop with administrators including the superintendent, assistant superintendent and high school principal to hold a silent memorial for the 17 victims of last month’s shooting at the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They were allowed 17 minutes.

Law enforcement stood by and the public was not allowed access on the grounds.

The majority of the students intended to simply stand in silence in recognition of the students and faculty slain at the high school in Parkland, Florida, then return to classes after 17 minutes.

But parents say a group of students then remained outside chanting anti gun slogans and some even brought the protest back inside the building for another hour or so.

Parent reaction

Some parents contend that the administration was aware of the second protest and did not relay that information to parents. Because of the uncertainty about the event some parents said they kept their children home from school that day.

“The administration knew about the second anti-gun protest,” said Paris parent Dennis Creaser, who said he and others were “infuriated” at not being told. Because he had heard rumors about “potential violence” that day, he chose to keep his daughter home, Creaser said.

While policy dictates that the administration did not address the parent’s question during the public portion of the meeting, but rather return at a later date with answers to questions, Superintendent Rick Colpitts had issued a letter to parents on March 6 through the school’s website and media outlets warning students about the parameters that would be allowed.

In the letter, Colpitts said they would allow a “limited forum,” for the students to show their support, but were not sanctioning a walkout. The forum would only be allowed for students to spend 17 minutes in silence in an area where their safety could be monitored.

The students were told they would not be disciplined if they participated in the time of silence. Teachers were told they could neither encourage nor discourage participation, nor lead any initiative and all students who did participate had to make up lost classwork.

Colpitts further stated in his letter to parents, “Our schools are not open to the public while school is in session and the public will not be allowed to participate with students. Students who leave school grounds or create an environment that administrators believe might extend beyond a peaceful recognition of the tragedy will be disciplined according to existing school policies and practices.

The letter did not address a second protest.

“I kept my kids home,” said Oxford parent Woody Wilson, who was joined by several other parents who did not allow their students to attend school March 15 because of security concerns and confusion over what would actually happen.

Middle School teacher Joe Cummings, whose daughter helped develop plans for a similar middle school memorial where the names of those slain in Parkland, Florida were read, said students develop their own opinions and they must be respected.

Their opinions, he said, are “thoughtful and heartfelt.”

“They have wonderful opinions and I hope we can respect them,“ he said.

A high school student who attended both the silent memorial and the protest told the school board and others at the meeting that they hope to bring about change and their intent was not to alienate or cause a division

Social media 

Social media exploded over this past weekend with concerns from parents and others over what some perceived as a cover up from parents. Colpitts took to social media Sunday night to try to address some of those concerns.

In part, he wrote, “Anticipating that some students would walk out, the district closed the campus, secured the facility, and physically blocked Viking Way and the bus loop. This contained participants in an secure area immediately outside of the cafeteria and away from the public and classroom spaces. The area was safe. Law enforcement was present.”

“There were 33 students who did not return to class after the walkout concluded. They were told they should return to class or face discipline. Their names were taken and parents notified of their actions and resulting discipline.

These students made an effort to leave school grounds in order to demonstrate off school property on the side of Route 26. Administration respectfully asked them not to leave school grounds for reasons of safety. They remained within the secure area and did chant and hold signs. They returned to school after another 17 minutes.

“Their activity was not sanctioned by administration. Most returned to class and finished their day. One student who refused to return to class was sent home. All 33 students received the punishment normally assigned to students who skip class; a one day in house suspension.”

Following the silent memorial, students had the opportunity during lunch periods to participate in an open forum with law enforcement, administration and teachers to talk about ways to improve safety in the schools.

Creaser told the board that he and other parents appreciated Colpitts remarks on the social media site.

School board chairman Ron Kugell said the issue should now be addressed at the policy committee level to ensure that the board is part of any future decision concerning use of school grounds for political action.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net