Students encouraged to participate in March 14 walkout — with caveats

Chad “Keone” Farias and Christina Kishimoto.

The state Department of Education is advising schools statewide to create a “designated walkout area” for students who want to participate in upcoming protests against gun violence, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a Friday letter to parents.

On March 14, students throughout the country are announcing plans on social media to participate in National School Walkout Day. The protest is slated to begin at 10 a.m. and will last for 17 minutes to honor the lives of the 17 people who died in the recent school shooting at a Florida high school.

On April 20, a second protest is planned at 10 a.m. on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

The DOE “supports students’ constitutional rights to a peaceful assembly and free expression,” Kishimoto said in the letter, though “disorderly conduct that disrupts school operations is not acceptable and will be appropriately handled in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct.”

Additionally, Kishimoto said students who leave campus during the event will be marked with an “unexcused tardiness or absence.” She said participation in any walkout is voluntary and the DOE advises schools to “encourage students to use the time to share ideas for improving campus safety, security and culture.”

Some schools on the mainland have said they will penalize students who are part of the protests. A school district in Texas said it will suspend any student who participates in a walkout.

“That’s exactly the opposite of what we want to do,” Chad “Keone” Farias, superintendent of the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area, said Friday about the penalties.

Farias said he’s not sure how many students locally plan to participate.

He said East Hawaii principals were sent guidance about the event and are being encouraged to respect students’ right to participate while also making sure any planned protest activities are safe and don’t break school rules.

“The last thing we want to do is discipline,” Farias said. … “As educators, we want to respect that kids have this right to participate in this responsible civic activity to voice their concerns that we need to bring school violence into the light. This is not a place students should feel unsafe. This is where they should feel most safe.”

Hilo High School is encouraging students to gather on the campus patio during the designated walkout time, Principal Bob Dircks told the Tribune-Herald on Friday.

He said students will be encouraged to write out any comments or concerns about gun violence and read them aloud — if they wish — during the event, which falls during Hilo High’s lunch recess.

He said Hilo High’s walkout is largely being organized by a student leader.

“So, it will be a means to share their thoughts and their voices, and it will be peaceful and won’t take away from academic time,” Dircks said. “Which I think is a very good call on the students’ part. … But this has got to be student driven. It can’t be something the adults come up with.”

Other principals said Friday they are discussing walkout events with their student leadership and hope to have plans in place next week.

Kishimoto said in the letter there have been more than a dozen school threats in Hawaii since January. She said none of those were credible and the majority were made on social media.

Pahoa, Keaau and Konawaena high schools were among campuses that received threats. The threats spurred police to increase their presence at the high schools.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.