By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Students at Cleveland High School and Cleveland Middle School are preparing to participate in the National School Walkout being planned Wednesday to draw attention to the issue of school …
Students at Cleveland High School and Cleveland Middle School are preparing to participate in the National School Walkout being planned Wednesday to draw attention to the issue of school safety.
The national event is being organized via social media by a group called Women’s March Youth EMPOWER. Students across the country are being urged to walk out of their school classrooms at 10 a.m. Wednesday to hold a 17-minute observance on school safety.
The number 17 is significant, because it's the number of students and educators who died in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That shooting has prompted national discussion on the issue of school safety.
"We are wanting to remember the 17 who died in the shooting and show we care about school safety," said Breana Shields, a CHS student involved in the walkout event. "It's not going to be a protest, really, but a chance to show we are paying attention to this."
The city schools will be operating as usual while the National School Walkout is taking place, meaning students at CHS and CMS will truly be walking out of classes while they are in session. Teachers and staff know students choosing to participate in the walkout will get up and leave their classrooms, but classes will continue as usual for any remaining students.
As plans for the National School Walkout have surfaced, some school administrators in other parts of the country have threatened to punish students for skipping class. However, Dr. Russell Dyer, director of Cleveland City Schools, said the local schools will allow any student who chooses to participate in the walkout to do so without any negative consequences.
Dyer said the local school district's view is based on guidance from the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. School district leaders were informed in a February letter that students have a right to assemble and exercise their free speech, and they should be allowed to do so as long as they do not cause negative disruptions.
"Nothing students have planned will cause a major disruption to the schools. This is happening across Tennessee and across the nation, and we want students to have the chance to exercise their right to free speech," said Dyer.
After learning about the national walkout, students at each school reached out to their principals to share their plans to participate and ask how they could best go about it.
Leaders at each school have provided students with a designated meeting place, to ensure the students who remain in class will not be disturbed. They also assured the students that those wishing to participate can do so.
According to school officials, students at both CHS and CMS plan to spend time solemnly remembering the victims, while also encouraging each other to speak out about issues related to bullying and school safety.
Dr. Leneda Laing, principal of CMS, said she has been "very impressed" by the students who organized the walkout there. She said they requested a meeting with her and also made a presentation to CMS' safety committee to detail their plans.
Cliff Eason, an assistant principal at CHS, described students there approaching school administrators in a similar manner.
"Our students have been very respectful and very open about what they want to do," said Eason.
The school administrators stressed the walkout events are completely student-led, and the views expressed will be those of the students.
Dyer described the upcoming walkouts in a letter sent to parents and school staff Monday afternoon. It said school leaders are anticipating a "peaceful assembly" at each school and that "any disorderly conduct that disrupts school operations is not acceptable and will be handled compassionately, but firmly, in accordance with our board policy and internal procedures."
The letter also encouraged parents to discuss the issue of school safety with their students and invited any students dealing with anxiety to speak to their school counselors.
It also stipulated that "no one from outside the school community will be allowed to come on campus to join in on this assembly." Dyer said this is to ensure the students' safety and ensure their voices alone are the ones being heard.
"Students spend a great deal of time at school. This a place they consider their second home, and we want them to feel comfortable talking about the issues they care about," Dyer said. "I do believe that students need to learn to advocate for themselves and what they want to see in their world ... and this can be a positive learning experience for them."
None of Bradley County Schools' students are participating in Wednesday's walkout, as the county schools are on spring break this week.
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