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Schools across Aroostook participating in student walkout

CARIBOU, Maine — School administrators from around The County are planning on peaceful student gatherings or moments of silence on Wednesday in recognition of the 17 victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month.

Organizers of the activist group Women’s March have called for a coordinated National School Walkout at 10 a.m. on March 14, exactly one month after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with students expected to march out of class for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim. In addition to being held in memory of the victims, however, Women’s March organizers say the event is for concerned students to raise their “voices for action” against all forms of gun violence.

Many principals and superintendents in Aroostook, though, are striving to give their students the space and freedom to express their support for the survivors and to honor the lives of those killed while steering clear of political or anti-gun demonstrations.

Superintendent Ben Sirois of SAD 27 in the Fort Kent area said student leaders there had asked and were being permitted to march out on Wednesday. He stressed that the gathering was student driven and that the school system was not sponsoring or organizing the walkout, was not forcing anyone to participate, and was not taking a political stance for or against any group.

Instead, we asked students to use the forum as a chance to show support for the victims of Parkland and to rally for school safety,” Sirois said in an email shared Friday with media and members of the school board. “This is about students supporting other students and advocating for their safety, which is totally different than walking out on a political argument that has nothing to do with them. They are in schools every day. They are right in showing support for school shooting victims and asking for school safety.”

He said staff would be monitoring students who go outside as well as those who choose not to participate and stay inside.

Superintendent Lisa Bernier of the neighboring SAD 33 in the Frenchville and St. Agatha area said that if students there asked to participate in a walkout she would be there to take part with them.

She said she agreed with Sirois and that the focus there too would be on “school safety and not guns. We do not wish to make this political if we participate.”

At least one school system in Aroostook decided to forgo a walkout for other commemorative activities. Kay York, principal of Central Aroostook High School in Mars Hill, said the student council is planning a Maroon/Red and White Day, representing the school colors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and will participate in a moment of silence at 10 a.m.

While administrators at some schools elsewhere have threatened disciplinary action against students who walk out or protest on Wednesday, most high schools around The County, including in Caribou, Limestone, Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield, Houlton and Hodgdon, plan to allow students to step out of class without repercussion.

“I can tell you for sure there will be no prohibition or punishment of students who want to participate in a walkout, if there is a walkout,” said Scott Richardson, superintendent of SAD 70 in the Hodgdon area.

RSU 50 Superintendent Todd LeRoy said Friday that Southern Aroostook Community School and Katahdin Middle-High School would follow a similar path.

“Jon (Porter, SACS principal) and Marie (Robinson, Katahdin principal) have met with the kids to be sure they understand what the reasons are for the walkouts and have been given the choice,” LeRoy said. “We will not punish students for voicing their opposition to school violence.”

Superintendent Tim Doak of RSU 39 in the Caribou area wrote in a statement to parents that the administration’s goal is to maintain a safe environment for all students, whether they choose to participate in a walkout or not.

“Our focus will be to support all of our students during that 17-minute walkout,” Doak wrote. “Students who feel they need to stay in class will be allowed to, students who feel they need a quiet space will be provided one, and students who walk out will be kept safe during the time they are outside the school.”

Regardless of what students choose, Doak said they will “all have the opportunity for personal expression in a safe, supported environment.”

Doak, who also is superintendent of SAD 20 in Fort Fairfield, said students at Fort Fairfield High School would be allowed to walk out of classrooms and go to the gymnasium. He was unsure of how many students plan to participate, but like in Caribou the school will provide counseling and quiet spaces to students who need those services and support them regardless of whether they participate in the walkout.

“We decided on the gym because we thought that would be a safer location for students than outside and we’re working with the local police department,” Doak said. “I think a peaceful demonstration can provide a learning experience for everyone. Our goal is keeping students safe and try to keep Wednesday as normal of a school day as possible.”

To achieve this goal, local police and school administrators will be present at Caribou High School and Fort Fairfield High School during the walkouts. Driveways will be blocked off and the public will “not be allowed to participate,” according to Doak’s memo to parents.

In the Houlton area, RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halladay also drafted a letter to parents of middle and high school students on the walkout after administrators and teachers were approached by students who wished to participate.

“As we have seen in the days after the tragedy in Parkland, students can have a powerful voice that can effect change,” Halladay wrote in the March 7 letter. “It is our role as educators to support them as they learn to appropriately apply democratic principles.”

She added that an area outside of the high school would be designated and maintained for student safety. The driveways to the school will be blocked to any traffic during the demonstration. Members of the public will not be allowed to participate, she said.

“School administration and staff will be present both inside and outside of the school,” she said. “Local law enforcement has also been notified and will be on hand. Students must stay on the school grounds, in the designated areas.”

Students who wish to remain in class will be allowed to do so, she added. School support and counseling also will be made available for any student, if needed. Halladay added that she hoped that students would talk with their parents about the reasons for the demonstration.

“We encourage our families to have conversations regarding whether or not their middle and/or high school children choose to participate in this student-led activity,” she said. “These conversations can provide terrific learning opportunities for our students as they work to become responsible, productive members of our communities.”

Not everyone agrees with allowing students to participate in the walkout, however.

State Rep. Dustin White, R-Washburn, who represents District 146 covering a large area in central Aroostook that includes Washburn, Mapleton, and Mars Hill, issued a statement in opposition on March 7.

“Though I strongly support everyone’s right to protest, students included, these protests have no place in our schools,” White wrote. “Allowing students to walk out of class for 17 minutes not only hinders the teacher’s ability to educate, it undermines the neutral position an educational institution must take.”

White argued in his statement that a walkout is a sign of “defiance,” something that has “no place in our schools.”

Though some superintendents indicated that students will be accommodated whether they want to protest or continue classes, White said students will likely “feel uncomfortable or compelled to participate so not to be the outlier,” and that the resulting walkout “only serves to divide our communities.”

The representative concluded his statement by condemning any school officials “who allow these protests to take place on Wednesday without consequence” to the students, and specifically called upon “Mr. Doak and all district superintendents to rescind their effort to further advance any political agenda and create division in our schools.”

But Caribou High School Principal Travis Barnes said a subcommittee of student councilors responsible for organizing the event are “very motivated” to participate in the March 14 protest.

“This is not a political movement for us,” Barnes said. Instead, he and students are focusing on honoring the victims of the Parkland shooting and acknowledging the reality of school shootings.

Barnes added that the school is incorporating #walkupnotout, a hashtag encouraging students to “walk up” to fellow classmates who may be sitting alone at the lunch table, for example, and making them feel safe and welcome in their environment. The challenge for the day, according to Barnes, will be for students to walk up to 17 others and introduce themselves.

Writers Joseph Cyr of the Houlton Pioneer Times, Melissa Lizotte of the Presque Isle Star-Herald and Jessica Potila of the St. John Valley Times contributed to this report.

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