Donovan Group Insights

First #NationalSchoolWalkout Offers Communications Lessons for School Districts

Wednesday, March 14 was a historic day in the world of education. While coordinated demonstrations among college students are somewhat common, this was the first time in which K-12 students joined together in a large-scale, nationwide protest.

Regardless of where you stand on students’ rights to protest and the issue of gun control, the fact that the event was possible in the first place is incredible. It showcased the power of social media to allow students from all over the country to coordinate a major protest with less than a month of planning.

Using the hashtags #Enough and #NationalSchoolWalkout, and the influence of existing groups associated with the Women’s March, national protest leaders were able to reach student leaders at individual schools. There perhaps was not a public high school in the country that did not see at least some students protest — even if they faced disciplinary action for doing so.

How did school districts handle the walkout?

In the days and weeks leading up to Wednesday, we saw school districts take very different approaches. Some, like the Needville Independent School District in Texas, made clear that they would suspend or otherwise punish students who walked out of class. Others openly supported their students exercising their First Amendment rights and turned the event into a learning opportunity. Many other districts allowed students to take part, but only if they followed strict guidelines and did not violate school policy.

In our current political environment, school leaders can feel that, no matter where they come down on student protests, they are likely to alienate parts of their community. By prohibiting protests and forcing students to remain in class, a district could violate students’ First Amendment rights. Conversely, allowing protests may lead to complaints that a district is taking sides or enabling disruptions to the learning environment.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that school districts took heat for both allowing protests to take place and issuing suspensions for students who participated.

More student protests planned

March 14 presented unique challenges to school leaders. It was a learning experience for others as they approached a large student demonstration for the first time. It’s important for us to understand, however, that Wednesday was likely just the beginning.

Over the next month, there are two more protests planned that may affect students. The first is March for Our Lives, led by survivors of February’s shooting in Parkland, Florida. While this demonstration, taking place on Saturday, March 24, will be focused on Washington, D.C., organizers have encouraged students across the country to march in solidarity. In Wisconsin, there’s a protest planned for 10 a.m. on State Street in Madison.

Planned for Friday, April 20 is National School Walkout, which looks to be similar to the March 14 protest. Students are encourage to attend school, but then walk out of class at 10 a.m. This event takes place on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in 1999.

Tips for preparing for the next protest

With all the momentum behind organizers of these recent demonstrations, student protest is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. To that end, we recommend that school leaders be prepared for them and work with students to ensure demonstrations move forward as seamlessly as possible and with few disruptions to the learning process.

Below are some quick tips:

  • Speak with student leaders: In many cases, there will be a handful of students or a student group leading the protest. Get in touch with these student leaders and meet with them in the weeks and days leading up to the planned event. Explain that the school/district supports students’ rights, but also must ensure school remains a safe and positive place for everyone — including those who choose not to participate.
  • Know all the details: Again, working with students, find out the day, time, location and all other details relevant to the protest. Organizers must be upfront about their plans if the school is to allow the demonstrate to take place.
  • Communicate often: Reach out to your key stakeholders, including parents, students, staff, school board members, law enforcement agencies and community members. Send a letter home to parents, post information to social media and your district website and be available for interviews with the news media. Be open and honest about how your school or district plans to handle the protest.
  • Outline clear ground rules: If a protest will be allowed, make sure all students know your school’s code of conduct. Make clear that if any of these rules are broken, the students involved will be disciplined appropriately. Informed students are less likely to accidentally violate school rules.

In many ways, managing student protests is a new issue for school and district leaders — and it’s one that can be difficult to navigate. By effectively preparing, communicating openly and understanding students’ rights, schools and districts can find the right balance.

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