RI ACLU issues statement on student walkout punishment
The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stepped into the debate over the fairness of a three-hour detention received by students who participated in a walkout protest two weeks, raising First Amendment questions and calling for Warwick Schools to make information on punishment protocols public.
A representative from the organization told the Beacon that it was prompted to make a statement after being contacted by someone in the city. The statement, here in full, was issued on Monday.
“The ACLU of Rhode Island has no independent information about the typical practices of Warwick school officials in punishing students for cutting class. But if, as some pupils and teachers have alleged, the three-hour detention imposed on students for walking out of school to protest school district special education practices is greater than the punishment normally given students for cutting class, serious First Amendment concerns are presented. Students cannot be given harsher punishment for missing a class in order to engage in a political protest than would be given if they were caught hanging out across the street at a McDonald’s.
“In order to address these allegations, the school district’s practices regarding punishment for cutting class should be made public so that any concerns about unfair treatment can be rebutted. However, if these students have indeed been the recipients of harsher punishment, the discipline should be removed from their school records. Otherwise, the school district will be giving students a very wrong lesson about the meaning of the First Amendment.”
More than 100 students participated in the protest held right before the winter break. The students said they walked out of their classrooms to protest in front of the Warwick Public Schools Administration Building on Warwick Avenue to show their support for special education students after the School Committee declined to endorse a resolution passed by the City Council that advocated for a third party investigation into special education separate from the State Department of Education review that’s in the works.
Zach Colon, the Toll Gate senior who organized the protest, said he was “extremely excited” by RIACLU’s involvement and thought making punishment practices public was a good idea.
“I would love to see the WSD make their disciplinary practices public, as I was not even shown them when I was given my punishment,” he said.
Though he had said last week that he thought the punishment was fitting, he’s since changed his mind after learning more information about disciplinary actions taken at schools.
“At the time I had not seen so many teachers say that the first offense for skipping class is a verbal warning,” he said. “Like I said, this is my first offense and first time getting in trouble, so at the time I really didn't know. It was excessive.”
In response to the ACLU statement, Superintendent Philip Thornton said he would “urge and caution that individuals get the facts” on the event.
“The facts are that leaving school grounds [a student safety issue] has resulted in a three-hour Friday detention,” Thornton said in an email on Monday. “Principal Gerry Habershaw, principal of Pilgrim High School and veteran administrator in the district, confirms that this is the consequence.”