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Student walkouts protesting shootings will vary around the country — and so will their schools’ responses

To mark the one-month anniversary of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students are planning walkouts around the country for Wednesday. Organizers expect more than 200,000 students in all 50 states will participate. But how schools handle these walkouts has been a matter of some concern. William Brangham learns more from special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow will mark one month since 17 people were killed and 17 more were injured during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    As some students continue to advocate for gun control and other changes, walkouts are planned around the country tomorrow to mark the anniversary.

    William Brangham has a look at some of the questions surrounding this event for our weekly series, Making the Grade.

  • William Brangham:

    Organizers expect more than 200,000 students in all 50 states will participate in the walkouts. How schools handle these walkouts has been a matter of some concern.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week has been covering this and is here with more.

    Welcome.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Nice to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    So, potentially, thousands and thousands of kids tomorrow are going to be walking out of school.

    Have you gotten a sense of what is the message that they're trying to convey?

  • Lisa Stark:

    There is really a dual purpose here.

    One is simply a memorial for those who lost their lives in Parkland and, the organizers say, for all students who may live in areas with gun violence, anyone who has been touched by gun violence.

    But it also is a call to action. This is a protest. They have things they want Congress to do. They want Congress to ban assault rifles, ban high-capacity magazines. They want background checks for all gun purchases.

    And they want Congress to pass that red flag law, the kind of law that was just signed into law in Florida, in fact, which would allow a court to take away a gun from someone who the judge deems is maybe at risk to themselves or someone else.

  • William Brangham:

    So, is your sense that it's going to be the same event at each school? Is it going to look different at different schools?

  • Lisa Stark:

    This is going to look totally different at different schools. Some kids will walk out. Some will hold moments of silence. Some schools are pushing kids to do assemblies, to actually not leave the school grounds.

    There is a school in Maryland, for example, that's going to put 17 desks, empty desks, in the auditorium with all the names of the Parkland victims.

    Aztec High School, which is in New Mexico, they lost two of their students to gun violence in December. They're going to gather around their flagpole, and they're going to try to come up with some positive ways to talk about school safety. So, this is going to really look different all over the country.

  • William Brangham:

    How are school administrators handling this? Because I have to imagine your task is, you want to keep kids in school. You're also responsible legally to look after them during the day.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Absolutely.

  • William Brangham:

    But I guess they also don't want to be squelching students' desire to get out and speak their mind politically.

    How are administrators going to deal with this?

  • Lisa Stark:

    Right. They are kind of walking a bit of a tightrope here.

    On one hand, they want students to find their own voices, as you say, but they are responsible for school safety. So, again, just as there will be all sorts of — types of demonstrations, the schools are all over the map, too.

    Some are banning walkouts. Some are trying to convince students to meet inside the schools, congregate inside the schools. Some are requesting parental permission if you want your student to participate.

    So, again, each school is handling that and each district is handling it quite differently.

  • William Brangham:

    Refresh me on the Constitution here. Students, no matter…

  • Lisa Stark:

    There's a First Amendment.

  • William Brangham:

    There is a First Amendment.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    And it applies to kids all over the country.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Yes.

    Well, as the Supreme Court has said, students don't check their First Amendment rights when they walk in the school door. But the problem is, there are school policies. And First Amendment freedom of speech isn't unlimited.

    So, schools can enforce their policy against unexcused absences, for example. Some may do that. But what schools can't do is give students a harsher punishment than they would have for any unexcused absence.

    They can't ratchet up the punishment because maybe they don't support this or agree with the political message that the students are trying to make.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Lisa Stark of Education Week, thanks so much.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you, Lisa and William.

  • And online:

    Teachers and students have expressed their ideas for stopping school shootings. You can read that and more on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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