York County schools brace for walkouts; attorney pledges to defend student protesters
York County school districts are preparing for students who might walk out of class this week to pressure legislators for tougher gun laws.
And any student who does take part in the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, and is charged as a result can count on local attorney Chris Ferro to represent them for free.
In a statement released Friday, March 9, Ferro said he stands behind "those students who take action and peacefully protest" in solidarity with those affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
"If any of these students are charged by law enforcement for crimes or summary offenses while exercising their rights peacefully, our law firm will represent each and every one of these students free of charge, if requested," he stated.
Students across the country are organizing local walkouts in response to recent school threats and violence, especially since the Florida shooting.
In honor of the 17 lives lost in Florida, students will walk out of school for 17 minutes in a show of protest against the violence and an effort to raise awareness for legislative change.
Local school walkouts: Dallastown School District Superintendent Ronald Dyer, when reached Saturday, March 10, confirmed that the high school would be participating in the walkout, and said student leaders are working with the administration on how best to handle the demonstration.
He said students reached out to the district about becoming involved in the walkout, and when officials saw the school was registered online through the Women's March Youth Empower website, they began working with students.
"We appreciate that they informed us," Dyer said, but he said the district was not taking a stand or position on the issue or promoting it in any way.
Dyer added that it was very good that students want to handle the walkout in a mature way.
In an email, York City School District acting spokeswoman Kate Harmon said that while the district hasn't heard of any planned walkouts at its schools, the district's police department has "protocols for most things that could happen in the district, including something of this nature."
She added that "students are welcome to walk out if they wish."
The Helen Thackston Charter School will be holding a school-wide walkout, according to school Principal Melissa Achuff.
Teachers will be equipped with signs that will have the words "Arm me with ..." and a blank space that can be filled with a phrase of their choice, she has said.
Walkout, stay in: Student Ali Kochik has said she plans to participate in the March 14 walkout at Red Lion Area Senior High School, where administrators are working on a compromise so students do not leave the school building, The York Dispatch reported Friday.
Kochik said the high school's student council planned a walk-in through the main gym, and district spokesman Don Dimoff confirmed these plans, adding that students will observe 17 minutes of silence for the Florida shooting victims and say a few words about each of them, followed by a period of student discussion.
Dimoff hopes students will stick to the encouragement of the council and stay inside, but Kochik knows some students are planning to walk outside, too.
Dover Area schools are taking a similar approach, as Superintendent Tracy Krum notified parents of the district's plans in an email.
Students will be allowed to walk out of classrooms and into the gymnasium in each school building and return to class within five minutes after the 17-minute demonstration, the email states.
Krum wrote the arrangements were made "(i)n order to support our students’ First Amendment rights while maintaining a safe and secure environment."
York Suburban School District plans to allow its middle and high school students to gather in an assigned location in each school building with staff supervision, according to a letter from the superintendent.
"While the District does not have an interest in prohibiting students from demonstrating, and will support a peaceful event within safe boundaries, it must monitor the activity to ensure students' conduct is nondisruptive and does not infringe on the rights and safety of all students," wrote Acting Superintendent Larry R. Redding.
Students are prohibited from lewd or vulgar speech and will be responsible for any missed work during the 17-minute demonstration, according to the letter, and staff will remain in their classrooms to continue teaching students who do not wish to participate.
Eastern York School District released similar statements about not allowing lewd or vulgar speech or disruption, according to a letter sent to parents.
High school students are permitted to leave their classrooms at 10 a.m. and meet in the cafeteria for 17 minutes of silence, with one name of a victim of the Florida shooting read each minute, as organized by student leaders. Middle school students may sit outside of their classrooms at the same time and duration.
The letter warns that if students do not comply with the school's rules for the protest, they could be disciplined.
"A walkout is civil disobedience, in that it is a violation of the District’s and the State’s attendance rules," the letter reads.
It continues, "A walkout is defined as leaving the classroom, the school building, or school grounds. Students are required to attend school, by law, such that the District Administration can take corrective action as a result of a Student missing school, even for a political protest."
Seniors at York Catholic High School will be leading a 10 a.m. prayer service, lighting candles in memory of each student and faculty member who lost their lives in the Florida shooting, according to a news release from the school.
The release states that York Catholic students inspired by a Florida student's suggestion to make a difference in the community in 17 ways will also participate in sharing actions of kindness on social media via the hashtag #whatsyour17.
West Shore School District will close off exit and entry to its schools from 9:45 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, "as a means of mitigating some potential risks" associated with the walkout, according to a letter penned by district Superintendent Todd Stoltz.
Middle school and high school principals are working with students to organize a walkout within their respective school buildings, the letter states.
York County School of Technology also will facilitate an alternate, indoor activity in place of a walkout, according to a letter posted on the school's website. "We cannot condone students leaving the building during the instructional day to participate in this activity," the letter states, citing concerns for student safety off campus.
West York Area School District also will go the route of keeping students within the school building during the walkout, according to Superintendent Todd Davies.
While the district is "not endorsing any type of walkout," students will be allowed to walk out of their classroom and participate in several activities during the walkout period, he said.
Legal action: Area school board members reached Saturday saw no need for legal action against students who take part in the demonstration.
Northern York County School District board Vice President Michael Barndt said his district has contingency plans in place for walkouts and will not allow students to walk outside of the building, but they will be able to participate in some way.
If students do walk outside, he said he hopes they will face disciplinary action from the school, but "I don't see why police would be involved."
Barndt said that if students protesting peacefully within school regulations do face legal action, maybe they should be represented by Ferro.
"If the whole school district does it, I don't see what the problem is," Dover Area School District board member Terry Emig said on whether or not students should face legal action for participating in the walkouts.
He said he believes an attorney offering legal representation to students free of charge is a publicity stunt.
"If they're gonna do that free of charge," he said, "(they're) trying to get on the side of the public."
Ferro said he's prepared to help any student, regardless of his or her position on gun legislation.
"We believe these students ... have a right to speak out without fear of direct or collateral consequences from the criminal justice system," he stated.
Kochik had not heard of Ferro's offer, but she agreed it's a great benefit, if any schools in the area are threatened with legal action. "If kids knew about it, they would utilize it," she said.
York Suburban School District board member Ellen Freireich said she had not heard of Ferro's plan to offer legal counsel to students, and she hadn't really thought about it. She agreed, however, that students should not face legal action for the walkouts.
Following the threats at Central York School District that closed schools for three days, district Superintendent Michael Snell has said he was worried about students leaving the building for walkouts.
"I believe in it, and I'm a party to your cause," Snell said to a student at a Central York town safety and security meeting Feb. 28. "I'm also responsible for your safety."
April: Another student-run national walkout is planned for Friday, April 20, the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, according to the event's Twitter page.
According to the National Student Walkout website, a map shows six York County schools are registered to participate in the April walkouts as of Saturday.
Participating schools include York Suburban High School, Dallastown Area High School, Red Lion Area Junior High School, Spring Grove High School, Susquehannock High School and Hanover High School.