Local high schools notify students of varying penalties for walkouts

by Jens Krogstad

For weeks, Twin Cities high school administrators warned that students planning to walk out of class in protest of the Iraqi strike would face severe consequences for their actions.

But as students organized and participated in planned protests starting late last week, many found the penalties to be varied.

At Highland Park High School in St. Paul, where a walkout is planned for Wednesday, students are being threatened with suspension if they choose to walk out – though the administration said they will only be punished with community service if they keep the walkout on school grounds.

Central High School in Minneapolis was issuing three-hour detention to students who walked out last Thursday without a note from their parents, but students said the penalty was not strictly enforced.

Minneapolis South High School administrators took a more lenient approach, sending letters out to parents saying the school could not support the walkout. Teachers were instructed “students are not to be stopped” if they choose to walk out, said Elianne Farhat, a South student.

Farhat said South High’s administration is not taking a hardline approach because it is a “very liberal community and students are very active – it’s like a school full of activists.”

Students at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights did not walk out last Thursday, but the school placed police outside hoping to prevent a protest.

One student, who did not wish to give his name, said the police approached him when he went to his car during lunch hour. The student said he was followed to make sure he returned to school.

Students in other schools where protests are being organized said they find it difficult to generate publicity for their cause.

At Minneapolis’ Central High School, administrators banned Theresa Schweigert from handing out fliers because she did not receive school permission.

“I think if I was handing out birthday invitations they wouldn’t have called me on it,” Schweigert said.

At South High School, administrators allowed students to hand out fliers, but only in the cafeteria during lunch.

Administrators must balance the need for a safe and structured learning environment with students’ First Amendment rights. But this is not a new challenge.

Many schools dealt with these conflicting interests during the Vietnam War, which led to a series of court decisions about students and free speech.

In the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines School District, three students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam. In the case, the court ruled in favor of the students because “they neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude in the school affairs or the lives of others.”

In the decision, the court referred to the 1966 case Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education to outline the limits on a student’s right to free speech at school.

Jens Krogstad welcomes comments at [email protected]