Platt High School Principal Robert Montemurro is to be commended for the way he handled a walkout by students on Feb. 21. Students at the school, along with those from across the nation, have been responding in a dynamic way to the school shooting in Florida, protesting gun violence and the response of lawmakers. “We aren’t going to settle for prayers anymore,” said one Platt student.
On that Wednesday, one week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., about 150 Platt students participated in the walkout. They left the school building at noon and stood outside for 17 minutes, to honor the 17 people who lost their lives in the Florida shooting. A moment of silence was held. Montemurro’s reponse? To join them, and offer words of encouragment.
“They really feel for the students down there,” he told the Record-Journal. “It’s a situation that, as 17-year-olds, I can’t imagine how confused they are because as an adult and principal and a father, I still can’t put my head around it.”
The reaction of Montemurro, who didn’t hear about the planned walkout until that morning, was one of understanding and respect, and one that cannot be taken for granted. There are school administrations that have not responded so warmly.
“While some school districts may support or sign on to these protests, others have already announced that they will not,” observed Gene Policinski and Lata Nott in an opinion piece that ran in last Sunday’s Record-Journal. Policinski is the chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, and Nott executive director of the institute’s First Amendment Center. As the authors noted, while students have First Amendment rights they are not as extensive as the rights enjoyed by grownups: “Their free expression rights can be curtailed by school officials if they can prove that the student action would ‘materially and substantially interfere’ with education in the school, or interfere with the rights of others.”
School officials are thus left with options when it comes to responding to student protest. Those include forbidding a walkout and then facing the decision of whether or not to punish students.
“Given that we live in an age where there is much concern that young people don’t understand the Constitution or support free speech,” the authors note, “punishing them for exercising it seems counterproductive ...”
The other option is to turn the event into a teachable moment. It is in the spirit of that option that Montemurro’s response is best measured, and admired. “Kids are kids,” he said. “They need support. And I just wanted to let them know that administration and staff do support them, but let’s just have a deeper conversation going forward.” That’s, quite simply, called good teaching.