Walkout was to be apolitical

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PARIS — The Oxford Hills School District administrators said they had three options when determining how to respond to last week’s student walkout at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in remembrance of 17 students and faculty members killed last month at a Florida high school.

Nikolas Cruz slipped into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14 with an AR-15 style gun and killed 14 students and three faculty members.

The national walkout is considered both a protest for Congress to pass stricter gun control laws and a memorial to those gunned down, according to organizers.

Superintendent Rick Colpitts said he and High School Principal Ted Moccia were told by legal council at the Maine School Board Association that the district could either outright ban the walkout and implement discipline measures for those who did leave their classroom or secondly, fully embrace the walkout as an open forum in support for passage of stricter anti gun legislation.

The third option was to take the middle road by not sanctioning the event, but acknowledging that the students want to be educated in a controlled, safe environment. They asked for and received assurance from the students that the 17 minutes would be used only as a remembrance of the students.

Colpitts and Moccia said they took the middle road.

“The school is not an open forum. The kids are there to be educated and that’s our job,” he told the SAD 17 Board of Directors at its March 5 meeting when concerns arose from school board Director Natalie Brown at the March 5 meeting about how the administration prepared to handle the walkout.

Brown said her concern arose in part because there was no dialog with parents, no conversation, no transparency initially. (A letter from Colpitts was sent that week to parents and printed in local newspapers.)

“I feel allowing the students to leave the classroom for a political statement is not proper. It is political positioning on gun control and I feel it has not place in the school,“ she told her fellow board members.

The school board is charged with “maintaining the peace and usefulness of the school,” she said.

Brown argued that the Women’s March was very specific in its desire to have the student walkout oppose the lack of stricter gun control laws, and not specifically to memorialize those killed in Parkland, Florida.

EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March, called for the students, teachers, school administrators, parents and other supporters to take part in the national school walkout for 17 minutes on March 14 at 10 a.m. specifically to protest Congress’ inaction to prevent gun violence. More than 2,500 walkouts nationwide were expected to occur.

In Maine, a walkout occurred in some schools such as in Yarmouth and York on March 14, but others, such as Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, delayed their walkout until the following day because of school closures on March 14.

After the walkout, nationwide student activists and their supporters plan to hold a “March for our Lives” protest on Saturday, March 24, in Washington D.C., with satellite marches planned across the United States and overseas. The “March for Our Lives” was initiated by survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and aims to pressure Congress to pass stricter gun control laws.

Colpitts told Brown and the board that the administration provided the students with a way to express their feelings in “a very limited forum.”  Teachers were told they could not support or dissway the students in their opinions. Further the students are responsible for making up any work they miss while not in the classroom for those 17 minutes.

Colpitts said the administration was very clear with the students who initiated the walkout in a conversations with the administration, that the walkout was to be 17 minutes of silence and not an open forum to sanction gun control. Each student that leaves the classroom was accounted for and would be held accountable, he said.

Moccia told the directors that administrators met with student leaders including student Council advisers and they picked the date, which did originally correlate with the national walkout (but was delayed one day due to snow) and they agreed gun control could not be mentioned.

Only students were allowed to participate. The public was not allowed beyond the fence on Route 26 and officers from Paris, Norway and Oxford were on hand. Middle School students were allowed a similar in a specific location chosen by the administration if they chose to participate. Elementary school children were not allowed to participate in a walkout but would be provided an opportunity for a moment of silence in a structured setting, Colpitts said.

As to why the students picked the day of the national walkout Moccia said, “They wanted to be in harmony with the rest of the nation.”

Moccia said he has no doubt that there is a movement afoot in the school of students who want to be more active in areas of letter writing campaign, voter registration and so forth.

“We’ll support any that is appropriate and will not be within school time,” he said.

Student representative Catrina Wilson, who sits on the Board of Directors as a student representative, agreed saying there was a difference between the national walkout and the one being held by OHCHS students.

“Maybe some of the victims were pro-gun, maybe some weren’t,” Katrina told the directors at the March 5 meeting. “Mr. Moccia, when he went to the Student Council, he made it very clear that it was going to be about promoting school safety and that students feel safe in a classroom and taking guns and political things out of it because we’re kind of just kids.”

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net