Suspensions rescinded for Kingston middle school students who walked out

Bailey Middle School

Kingston City School District officials last week rescinded the out-of-school suspensions of six J. Watson Bailey Middle School students they say disrupted access to a basketball court during lunch on the day students across the country participated in a national walkout to promote awareness about gun violence. But for some parents and students the response from administrators misses the point.

Bailey eighth-grader Lily Thompson addressed the school board at its March 22 meeting, eight days after the nationwide walkout which included an estimated 1,800 students at Kingston High. At Bailey, Thompson said, students were not permitted to participate.

“I saw teachers blocking the doors,” Thompson said. “I knew they were blocking the doors so they wouldn’t let kids out. At recess, a whole bunch of people were in a circle shouting, ‘We want justice!’ and the vice principal and the principal were there. After recess, people sat down for the moment of silence for those who were in the shooting.”

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The demonstrations were part of a nationwide walkout in tribute to the 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. who lost their lives to gun violence on campus one month earlier. The ENOUGH National School Walkout was an initiative organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, a collective of teenage activists from across the country working within the larger Women’s March organization. The national walkout was planned for 17 minutes starting at 10 a.m. in each time zone across the country on Wednesday, March 14, one minute each for everyone who lost their lives in the Florida shooting one month earlier.

At Kingston High, student leaders worked with school officials to find common ground which would allow participation in the March 14 walkout without interference. After the sanctioned in-school rally, around 100 Kingston high students walked outside to continue their protest along the campus wall on Broadway. Superintendent Paul Padalino last week announced that those students would not be punished. But with the superintendent reportedly away from the district in the days immediately following the walkout, it took time before what unfolded at Bailey to reach his office.

It wasn’t the first time students at Bailey felt the need to be involved: On Tuesday, Feb. 20, students and faculty at the school participated in a peaceful walkout and moment of silence to honor the Parkland victims. Initially planned as an impromptu student demonstration, school officials at Bailey, including Principal Debra Fitzgerald and Vice Principal Dan Erceg, worked with students to turn the event into a sanctioned school-wide response.

During last week’s meeting, school board President Nora Scherer said the actions of the students on the Bailey playground on March 14 were a symptom of a bigger problem.

“There seems to be a widely held misconception that students do have the right to make their passionate devotion to any cause, make an announcement about it or have a march or sit-in about it at any point in time, which is not the case,” she said. “And there’s a lot of case law that comes out in favor of the [school] districts when students have created substantial disruption to the educational process.”

Scherer added that the best way for students and other to have their voices heard on this or any issue is to make informed choices at the polls.

“We shouldn’t have students attending school on a daily basis worrying about gun violence in their classroom,” she said. “So, get out and vote.”

Thompson, who said she was not one of the six suspended, said that while trustees and administrators focused primarily on the lunchtime demonstration on the Bailey basketball court, they did not mention that some students who hoped to walk out at 10 a.m. in solidarity with other kids across the country found the doors barred by teachers.

Former Third Ward alderman Brad Will, a parent of students at both Bailey and Harry L. Edson Elementary School, said during the school board meeting that he’d heard of teachers blocking the doors and was alarmed for a few reasons.

“What I did hear, which in legalese would be called hearsay, I found to be very disturbing,” Will said. “If teachers were indeed blocking the doors, I consider that to be, and I think I’m not alone in this because the ACLU has spoken about this, to be a violation of those students’ First Amendment rights. On top of that, it really was a denial of what could have been a tremendous civics learning opportunity. An educational opportunity.”

On Thursday, March 15, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote an open letter to state Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia with concerns about schools which planned to punish students and reports of exits being blocked in an effort to prevent participation in protest.

“Yesterday, I proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with brave students and faculty who spoke out against gun violence,” wrote Cuomo. “History provides moments where real change is possible, and the thousands of students who participated in organized walkouts all throughout the state are seizing the moment and admirably standing up for the safety of their classmates and students across the country…In the last 24 hours, there have been several reports of New York State schools disciplining students and faculty for participating in yesterday’s historic events to stop gun violence.  In at least one disturbing incident, it was reported that the school physically blocked the exits to prevent students from demonstrating…These actions send a terrible message to New York’s children and are against constitutional free speech protections. I call on you to use SED’s authority to stop these schools, reverse course and cease any disciplinary actions.”

Cuomo’s letter also asked Elia to investigate any instances of school exits being blocked to prevent participation in protest, which he called, “an egregious safety violation” and “unlawful.”

“Yesterday’s actions were a testament to the courage and leadership of New York’s students,” wrote Cuomo. “As I said yesterday, these young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington.  To punish or discipline them is inconsistent with the freedom of expression that we cherish. It would say more about the adults imposing discipline than it would about the students who exercised their rights to speak out.”

At the school board meeting, Thompson said she and other students who hoped to join in during the nationwide event at 10 a.m. on March 14 were doing just that — trying to exercise their rights to speak out.

“It is unfair that the high schoolers get to do it, but we can’t do the walkout,” said Thompson. “We want to be able to do the same things that high schoolers get to do like the walkout, because we know what’s going on. We know what happened on the day of the shooting. We’ve been doing lockdown drills since we were younger and we’ve watched the news at home. We know what’s going on.”

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Thompson’s mother, Michele Hirsch, said shutting Bailey students out of participating on March 14 was a disappointment, whether it originated with district administrators or was the spontaneous action of educators in the school.

“I know the planned walkouts across the country weren’t just for high school students, that elementary and middle school students were planning on partaking in the protests as well,” Hirsch said. “And I know that the February observance was a remembrance, not a protest. The students really wanted to protest gun violence that was occurring in schools.”

Hirsch added that the punishments initially doled out to the six Bailey students seemed to run counter to the direction the district claims to be heading.

“It’s pretty harsh, especially when the district is promoting all those new [restorative] justice programs,” she said, adding that had her daughter been suspended to participating in a protest, she wouldn’t have minded. “Even if she got suspended, I would have been fine with her taking a punishment for it.”

Hirsch said Lily felt compelled to address the school board because her daughter felt it was important to keep speaking up.

“It was really important to her for people to understand what happened,” Hirsch said. “She was talking for days about these teachers blocking the doors, and that it really seemed to bother her a lot.”