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You can be punished for walking out of school—here’s why you probably won’t be expelled

In February, students from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland staged a walkout in support of gun reform.
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In February, students from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland staged a walkout in support of gun reform.

Thousands of student walkouts are set to take place across the country on Wednesday to protest gun violence, advocate for gun reform policies and honor the 17 lives lost in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month. EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women's March is organizing the event and expected over 3,135 walkouts to occur.

In many instances, schools are allowing students to peacefully walkout and many teachers are participating themselves. Several school districts, however, have threatened severe disciplinary punishment for students who join the protest, leaving students and parents to worry — what are the potential consequences?

The Needville Independent School District outside of Houston, Texas was one of the first school districts to announce that students who protest on the 14th will be punished.

"We will discipline no matter if it is one, 50, or 500 students involved," wrote Needville Superintendent Curtis Rhodes in a letter to students and parents, as reported by the Dallas News. "All will be suspended for three days and parent notes will not alleviate the discipline."

Disciplinary actions, such as the ones described by Rhodes, are theoretically allowed. But as you can imagine, it's complicated.

"Students do not lose their rights to free speech at the schoolhouse gate," says Vera Eidelman, a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to Time.

Eidelman is alluding to a 1969 Supreme Court case in which Mary Beth Tinker was suspended from her high school in Des Moines for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War. The court sided with Tinker and reaffirmed that students have the right to freedom of speech at school.

In the case majority decision, Justice Abe Fortas writes, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

This decision confirmed that it is unconstitutional to limit a student's freedom of expression so long as it does not "materially and substantially interfere" with school operations. This issue is that by design walkouts often interfere with school operations. Therefore, students can be punished for walking out.

"Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class," explains the ACLU website. "But what they can't do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action."

Since schools don't expel students for cutting class for 17 minutes, they likely can't expel students for briefly and peacefully protesting.

"They can't impose a severe penalty for participating in the political activity when they would have imposed a mild penalty for another kind of absence," ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner tells People. "If a student was to get expelled for a 17-minute or even two-hour absence one time from a public school, I would want to know about that. I think that would almost certainly be a constitutional violation."

The exact punishment for protesting will vary according to the state, school district and school. For instance, the New York City Department of Education released a guideline indicating that students will not be disciplined for protesting peacefully but that they will receive the standard punishment for missing 17 minutes of school — a conversation with a teacher about cutting class.

Students at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, however, tell The New York Times that their teachers are participating in the walkout and simply expect students to be back in class by 1:15 p.m.

Therefore, every student should check with local policies to confirm that they are in a position where they are able to participate in a walkout of any kind. But if they are worried about getting expelled, they are probably in the clear.

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