WALLINGFORD — Some high school students still plan to participate in the national school walkout next week despite administrators announcing students would be disciplined for participating.
“I want to stand with the kids in Parkland,” Sheehan High School student Ryan Busillo said. “I feel like what they said is very important to me...I feel that we should respect their wishes.”
Busillo and Sheehan classmate Peter Borzillo, both freshmen, are rallying classmates to participate in the national school walkout Wedesnday at 10 a.m. to honor the victims and survivors of the Florida school shooting and lobby lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws.
Administrators from central office and both high schools sent a letter to families this week saying the district wouldn’t endorse the protest and that students would face “disciplinary consequences” for participating.
Instead, they and a group of about 50 to 60 students compromised alternative activities including a moment of silence inside the school and a “letter campaign” that will let students write letters to lawmakers. A “teacher-guided meditation” will be offered as well as a “peer support center” where student can “gather to discuss recent events,” the letter said.
School officials explained they believe the plan is safer and less disruptive.
"We're very proud of our students, and we see this as an opportunity for them to have ownership in the day and step up and continue to respond in a mature manner," Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo said this week about the meeting with students, which lasted about two hours.
Borzillo and Busillo contacted the Record-Journal this week.
“A lot of us are really fed up with the administration and the fact that they're taking control of this and not letting us having our voice,” said Borzillo. He said “a lot of kids” felt the “need to take a stand.”
Students first approached administrators last month about endorsing the walkout following the shooting in Parkland, Florida. Busillo and Borzillo weren’t a part of the meeting.
“I’d like to think that they tried to come in with an open mind, but from the beginning I was thinking that they weren't going to be supportive of a walkout,” Busillo said. “It’s in their nature to want to keep everything regimented and everybody safe.”
Busillo recognized administrators were put in a difficult position trying to balance the opinions of different groups, but wishes the district didn’t announce students would be punished for walking out.
Menzo said administrators didn’t tell students at the meeting that they couldn’t walkout and allowed the group to come up with alternatives on their own.
According to the student handbook, “participating in any unauthorized walk out from or sit-in within a classroom or school building” is grounds for suspension. Menzo said Thursday that he is “hopeful that all students take part in (the alternative activities), and as a result, we would not have to impose any forms of disciplinary consequences.”
William Fish, a Hartford-based first amendment lawyer, said past court decisions have established that schools can discipline students for a free speech expression if it disrupts the school day. He added schools can’t levy harsher discipline because of the political nature of the action.
Wallingford’s student handbook also states that “being absent from school and/or class when such absence is unauthorized” is grounds for suspension, but Fish said courts would consider the track record of how schools discipline students for being absent.
“If they’ve never suspended someone for the first time that they’ve missed class, and all of a sudden 20 people do it as part of a protest and they get suspended — that’s not right,” Fish said.
Borzillo and Busillo said they are willing to face suspension to send a message to lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws, and they are encouraging others to do the same.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this is not only have I felt let down by the adults, but I’ve also felt almost desensitized to (school shootings),” Borzillo said. “There’s been a lot of school shootings since Sandy Hook and I feel like it doesn’t even feel as hurtful as it should anymore.”