Education

Rocklin High pro-life walkout tests school bias

About two dozen adults demonstrate for a pro-life viewpoint on the sidewalk in front of Rocklin High School in Rocklin. Rocklin High was the epicenter of a national school pro-life walkout.
About two dozen adults demonstrate for a pro-life viewpoint on the sidewalk in front of Rocklin High School in Rocklin. Rocklin High was the epicenter of a national school pro-life walkout. rbenton@sacbee.com

Rocklin High School junior Brandon Gillespie wanted to test school administrators when he planned a walkout Tuesday to protest abortion. Would the school punish anti-abortion protesters for leaving classes for 17 minutes, the same amount of time that students taking part in the National School Walkout left classes on March 14, without discipline?

The answer was no.

About 40 students holding pro-life signs left classes at about 10 a.m. and squared off peacefully in the quad with 10 or so students holding pro-choice signs, according to district officials, who would not allow media near the protest. Another dozen students looked on, according to officials. There were a few speeches, but after about 17 minutes, the students returned to class.

District officials said there were no plans to discipline the students.

Gillespie said he was inspired to test his school after its leadership put his history teacher on administrative leave last month after she questioned whether there was a double standard on campus when it comes to protests.

Julianne Benzel said she was put on leave because she asked students in her classes whether they thought students who protested other issues would be treated the same as the protesters who walked out of class on March 14.

Student walkouts across the nation that day were billed as a mass protest against the National Rifle Association and a call for stricter gun control measures in response to the February shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.

Rocklin Unified School District officials wouldn't offer specifics about Benzel's administrative leave but said it was for "reasons surrounding her conduct at school and in the classroom," according to a statement released last month. "The teacher was not penalized or placed on leave based on her viewpoints."

While the two groups of students protested Tuesday, a slightly louder group of about 30 pro-life adult demonstrators waved signs and chanted just outside the campus, some drawn by media reports and others because their children were participating in the protest.

Gillespie also had challenged other schools to join the protest on the Students for Life website and said students at about 350 schools nationwide participated Tuesday.

The Rocklin High teacher's suspension generated plenty of publicity, including local and national coverage, which Benzel credits for the district's decision to end her leave after two days without discipline.

Reached Tuesday, Benzel said she discussed the National School Walkout with the 120 students in her classes because she encourages critical thinking and wanted them to be aware of the upcoming event, to speak with their parents and to make an informed decision about whether to participate in it.

Gillespie and Benzel both say that Tuesday's protesters were not treated the same as the participants in the National School Walkout, who were given tents to shelter them from the rain and a public address system. Teachers also were directed not to discipline students who participated in the March 14 protest, Benzel said. She said similar directives were not given to teachers about Tuesday's protest, although the district did say it would not punish students who participated in the protest Tuesday.

Benzel sees the issue as a matter of equity, while Gillespie says schools in California tend to have a more liberal bias.

District officials contend that the two events were treated differently because they were different. According to the district, Rocklin High opted for a remembrance activity on March 14 that included 17 minutes of silence, an event "considered viewpoint neutral" and "a show of unity for students as part of a national conversation concerning school safety."

District officials said the request to hold a pro-life walkout during instructional time did not fall under the school district's policy for assemblies and special events. "It is not related to school and is not viewpoint neutral," said the statement.

Gillespie doesn't agree.

"It was obvious that the previous protest was controversial," he said. "It was advertised at our school as being part of the national protest. It was part of the gun control protest."

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