School Shooting Florida

People light candles at a makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were killed in Wednesday's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Gerald Herbert

Students at schools throughout the U.S. as well as some in Louisiana are planning to hold a variety of protests as part of National School Walkout day Wednesday, though in the Baton Rouge area the vast majority will likely stop short of actually walking out of class during school hours.

The idea of students simply walking out at 10 a.m. Wednesday and staying out for 17 minutes – a minute for each life lost in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting Feb. 14 – has not gone down well with school leaders at many high schools in Louisiana.

Lafayette Parish school leaders initially announced they would not discipline students who decided to participate in the walkouts. The parish School Board, though, had other ideas. On March 7, the board voted that Lafayette public schools will hold a moment of silence Wednesday morning in lieu of protests. Students and staff can also wear blue shirts as a symbol of peace.

Students at several East Baton Rouge Parish high schools have been working with their teachers and administrators to develop sanctioned in-school events that would allow students ways to express themselves without disrupting class time.

In Ascension Parish, Dutchtown High School students are planning to wait until after school and take their protest off school grounds after administrators threatened disciplinary action against any of them who bolted class during school hours.

Both school districts issued statements Monday on the issue.

“Principals are proactively creating opportunities for students to express their sentiments in a safe and productive way,” said Taylor Gast, an East Baton Rouge Parish school spokeswoman.

Ascension Parish Superintendent David Alexander focused on preventing educational disruption, according to his statement. He urged parents to “join us in encouraging your child to cooperate with their principals and teachers to ensure safety, order, and educational goals are not compromised on March 14th as well as any day while at school.”

If students want to protest beyond what their schools are comfortable with — and not face potential disciplinary action — then their parents need to check them out of school and protest off campus, the statements say.

In Livingston Parish, principals at Denham Springs and Walker high schools did not say that they would discipline students who walk out of class, but neither are anticipating protests.

Walker High principal Jason St. Pierre said his school held a “See it, Say it,” rally about school safety on Friday, serving as an outlet for students to express themselves on the issue.

“For us, I don’t anticipate any issues,” said St. Pierre, who would not say if there would be consequences for those students who do leave their classrooms.

“We wanted to give our kids a voice, and we wanted them to be safe,” he said.

On Monday, Jane Johnson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, issued a letter, warning school administrators that students have the legal right to protest.

“Rather than focus on discipline, schools should regard National School Walkout day as an opportunity for a practical lesson in participatory democracy,” according to the ACLU. “During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions.”

Johnson acknowledged that schools can discipline student protesters if they have rules against missing class, “students cannot be disciplined more harshly because they miss class to express a political view.”

She also said that it’s not legal to discipline students simply for “wearing clothing, armbands, or other accessories that bear political viewpoints just because someone may disagree with that view.”

Angelina Contelli, a senior at Dutchtown High, said she became interested in holding a protest soon after the Parkland shooting. The issue became close to home on Feb. 19 when a former student living in another state made an alleged online threat to do harm to Dutchtown High. Contelli said many of her fellow students stayed home that day. She came that day, bringing a doorstop, to try to bar the door if someone tried to bust into her class. She said she soon felt absurd over feeling the need to bring that to school.

“I was sitting in class with a doorstop wondering why I even had do anything,” Contelli said.

She said that she and other students opted against a walkout after the school’s principal and Ascension Parish Superintendent Alexander both “reminded us that missing class will result in suspension and Saturday detentions.”

Instead, she and other students plan to walk out to the street and protest on the public right-of-way.

“We still feel like we wanted to do it in a way that our voices are heard,” Contelli said.

Annie Sheehan-Dean, a tenth-grader at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, said she too at first wanted to do a walkout like some other schools are planning. But she and a handful of students changed course after talking to Principal Nan McCann. Instead, they are organizing a sort of town hall at the school that will last 30 minutes with a mix of student speakers and outside adult speakers.

The organizing has been tricky, she said.

“(The principal), she didn’t want this to be a very political event, so we wanted a way to channel this movement,” she said. “But this is very political issue, gun control.”

Sheehan-Deen said she’s also met with students at Lee and McKinley high schools organized similar school sanctioned events. She said she expects more students event in the future.

“I’m incredibly passionate about this,” she said. “I also believe there needs to be reform in our nation.”

Caroline Grueskin also contributed to this story.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.