NWA editorial: Follow the rules, but ...

Board suggests accountability means something

The level of activism sparked among young people by the awful violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has been a site to behold.

Few times in recent memory have we witnessed a collection of voices joined together into what can legitimately be called a movement for change. Students at the high school and others who have joined them have clearly determined they will not allow the tragic loss of lives to be the only outcome of the Feb. 14 massacre.

What’s the point?

Bentonville’s School Board takes a hard line on student demonstrations during class time — and they’re right.

They've joined forces with Empower, described as the youth branch of the Women's March, to call on students, teachers and staff to walk out of schools at 10 a.m. today to honor those whose lives were taken and to press for more gun control laws, according to Empower. The group anticipates more than 2,000 walkout events across the nation.

In the process, they've sent school administrators and school boards scrambling to make plans about how to deal with a mass demonstration. If Northwest Arkansas is any indication, there is no one-size-fits all response.

In Fayetteville, school administrators are embracing the moment, cooperating with student leaders by creating a 17-minute break in the high school schedule to allow anyone who wants to participate in an on-campus event to do so. Four students will be allowed to speak. At 10:17 a.m., the school's bell will ring and, according to plans, students are to return in orderly fashion to their regular schedule.

Fayetteville officials say another group of students plan a march from the high school to the Washington County Courthouse, but school leaders say that is not a sanctioned school event. They sent out a letter to parents requiring a parental permission slip for students to be excused from school. Otherwise, students will be given unexcused absence. What students do on their own time, a district spokesman said, is their business.

Rogers High and Heritage High students plan to gather for a 17-minute silent observance. If students peacefully assemble and express their opinion without substantial disruption, the school does not plan to take any punitive action, a spokesman said.

In Springdale, there is no protest, according to a school spokesman. Rather, students will be permitted to participate in a "vigil" coordinated between student leaders and administrators. The spokesman said the event will be apolitical, focused on remembering the students lost at Parkland, and has "nothing to do with guns," said Rick Schaeffer, the district's communications director. Schaeffer said the district is open to hearing student voices, but no significant disruption of instructional time will be allowed. The event, he said, will take place in students' advisory period.

But things got really interesting in Bentonville, where administrators were willing to let students participate without adverse disciplinary consequences, but a divided school board overruled them. In a 4-3 vote, the school board voted to enforce standing district policy, which will result in participating students being marked absent. They will have to serve 30 to 45 minutes in detention as a result.

At the center of deliberations for all of these school districts is the often-expressed desire to avoid any disruption in the educational environment. Some have clearly decided this occasion is worthy of such a disruption. Bentonville's school board, however, said no way.

"As much as we love our executive team, we can't leave it to them to be able to pick and choose which demonstration or which student-led group they will be supporting by not following policy," board member Rebecca Powers said.

Indeed, all of the other school districts are being supportive of the students' message when in other circumstances they would not stand for a disruption. Let's consider this: What if a serious-minded group of students responded to a national movement in support of President Trump's wall between Mexico and the United States? Would administrators be so permissive in clearing the path for a school day demonstration?

Try as they might, they can hardly get away from the fact they're embracing this cause. One can certainly make an argument that it's a good cause. But government entities, which is what a school district is, cannot constitutionally get in the business of favoring student expression from one perspective while rejecting it on others.

Fayetteville, for example, recently disciplined students for repugnant comments made off campus, outside of school hours, and posted on social media. Supposedly because students were talking about it at school, this amounted to a disruption of that cherished instructional time and the child was disciplined. And yet today, a group of kids will actually disrupt the school day during instructional time, and that's OK with school officials. Why? Because they support the cause the kids are advocating.

Bentonville's stance, purely speaking, is at least consistent.

This isn't just about free speech, although that's a significant component. These students could express themselves on a Saturday or Sunday, or after school if it was just about speaking their minds. No, they have decided specifically to disrupt the school day as a form of protest or demonstration. Whatever one calls it, it's a movement to get attention focused where they want it. Schools that are accommodating a walkout without any repercussions are putting the weight of the district behind the movement's message. The question is, what happens when there's a movement the school district isn't willing to embrace? Is that government playing favorites?

Then there's the issue of civil disobedience. We applaud kids who want to express themselves so strongly that they're willing to pay a price for their actions. That's the true spirit of civil disobedience in our nation. So many people who came before today's participants paid a far, far greater price than a little time in detention as they addressed injustice. Bentonville's stance may seem hard line, but it's far closer to educating the students about responsibility and accountability. Students have to decide whether their movement is worth paying a penalty. And if they do so out of true conviction, we applaud them for standing up and walking out.

Protest has been an effective tool in our nation's history and we impressed by the activism of these young people as they seek a better future. But John Lewis didn't cross that bridge in Selma only after local authorities gave their permission. Susan B. Anthony got arrested for casting a ballot in 1872, long before women were authorized to vote. This nation was born out of civil disobedience like the Boston Tea Party, but it led to an intensified crackdown by the English king that marched the colonies into a revolution.

Some will participate in today's event not as a protest, but as a remembrance, and others will just join in because everyone else is doing it. The earnest demonstrations for change earn our respect. The students in Bentonville, however, will experience the most teachable moment. They'll have to make a choice and pay a price for their convictions. That's how real change takes place.

Commentary on 03/14/2018

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