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Local schools gird for student walkout over gun violence

Thousands of Sacramento-area students are expected to join their peers across the country in participating in the 17-minute National School Walkout March 14 in protest of gun violence.

The walkout comes a month after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by a former student with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The mass shooting threw some of the survivors at the school into the spotlight as they held press conferences and visited the Florida State Capitol and Washington, D.C., in an effort to convince lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws.

The walkout, spearheaded by the Women's March, is one of a series of walkouts and marches scheduled over the next few months to urge lawmakers to strengthen gun control laws. March for Our Lives, a national march on Washington, D.C., is set for March 24 and another National School Walkout Day is scheduled for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

Sixteen schools in the four-county Sacramento region already have been identified as protest sites by Women's March Youth Empower on March 14. Its website shows student marches are being planned as far away as Israel and England, with local walkouts planned at Edna Batey Elementary School in Elk Grove; River City High School in West Sacramento; Davis Senior High School in Davis; Orangevale Open K-8 and Pershing school in Orangevale; Folsom and Vista del Lago high schools in Folsom; Granite Bay High in Granite Bay; Quail Glen Elementary School, Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills; Del Oro High School in Loomis; Lincoln High School in Lincoln; and El Dorado High School in Placerville. Sacramento schools taking part in the walkout include Rio Americano and American River College.

An event also is planned at the California State Capitol.

Almost all school districts are planning alternate events on March 14 in an attempt to keep students on campus during the national walkout, but officials have differing ideas about whether students who do march out of class will be disciplined.

"Events such as walkouts are especially challenging for schools as we have to balance student safety and required school attendance with the rights of students to express themselves," said Christopher Hoffman, Elk Grove Unified superintendent, in a letter to families.

School districts are still working on the specifics, but most are considering events they can tie to school curriculum. Activities could include a letter-writing campaign, poetry, producing pamphlets, speeches delivered at lunch time or the wearing of a certain color as ways students can protest without walking off campus, said Lori Grace, an assistant superintendent at Twin Rivers Unified.

She said the district is trying to "help students voice their opinion on this issue in a positive manner."

Twin Rivers Unified plans to add security and extra staff on campuses in case students still opt to take part in the 17-minute walkout.

"We are prepared and no one will be punished for that," she said, although students who leave campus and do not return will have an unexcused absence.

Sacramento City Superintendent Jorge Aguilar was among the superintendents who sent out letters to families addressing the issue. He said the district is working with students, police, school staff and community organizations to plan events for students on March 14 that will keep them on campus and safe.

District spokesman Alex Barrios said the activities will be in the spirit of the walkout. "Our district is very supportive of the statement (of the walkout), no question about it," he said. "We also, at the same time, have to make a statement without encouraging risk."

Sacramento City Unified leaders have yet to decide if students will be disciplined for walking out of class on March 14.

Folsom Cordova Unified Superintendent Sarah Koligian said students must have permission from their parents to take part in the walkout or their absences won't be excused.

The district, which has two high schools scheduled to participate in the walkout, also is considering alternative ways for students to express themselves without leaving campus.

"When students advocate for an issue they feel passionate about, it can be a powerful learning experience," Koligian said. "Many may be drawn to the idea of showing solidarity in support of the victims of the Florida shooting, and we are proud that our students want to exercise their First Amendment rights to express their views on this important topic."

She said schools would continue on their regular schedule during the walkout.

Natomas Unified won't discipline students who walk out of classes March 15, said Jim Sanders, district spokesman. "We may look at discipline if there is something other than a walkout."

He said administrators will be out and visible on campuses, as will the school site safety team and teachers on their prep periods.

"All the high school principals had a good meeting around this and they didn't feel this would be a major issue," he said.

Elk Grove Unified also plans to continue with its regular school schedule and to enforce all its attendance rules.

School districts are getting guidance from national organizations like the Council of the Great City Schools, which recommends that schools meet with student leaders, prioritize safety and make the day a teachable moment. Their guidance includes recommendations for district administrators, as well as scripts for school site leaders to read if a walkout occurs.

Information distributed by the American Civil Liberties Union says schools have the right to punish students for missing class, but not more harshly for protesting than for missing school for another reason. A recent video training for students reminds them that they do not lose their right to free speech by walking onto a school campus, as long as they do not disrupt the functioning of the school.

Students concerned that discipline could impact their chances of being accepted into California universities are being reassured by school officials.

"Peaceful participation in demonstrations will have no impact on applicants for admission to California State University campuses," said CSU Chancellor Timothy White in a statement released Thursday. "As a university, we encourage the peaceful exchange of diverse viewpoints and we are committed to free speech rights."

The UC Davis Facebook page featured this post on Feb. 25: "We encourage our community to exercise freedom of expression and engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue. Students who participate in peaceful protests will not jeopardize their admission to UC Davis."

California Community College Chancellor Eloy Oakley chimed in as well. "The California Community Colleges support freedom of expression, plain and simple," he said in a statement, adding that participating in the walkout will not affect students' admission to or status at a California community college.