After initially warning students and staff that participation in a March 14 national walkout to protest gun violence would result in disciplinary action, officials representing School Administrative District 13 have altered their position to allow an alternative for students who want to express their views on the divisive topic.

In a letter posted on the district’s website, Virgina Rebar, superintendent of the Moscow and Bingham schools, said the district’s response to the issue has evolved. Students at the high school now will be given an opportunity to discuss their views on school safety inside — and not outside — the building.

“School officials including the Administration and School Board recently discussed plans and procedures that will allow students to voluntarily safely honor the victims and share opinions,” Rebar wrote in the letter.

The nationwide walkout was planned following a Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At 10 a.m., on the one-month anniversary of the shooting, participants will walk outside of their schools for 17 minutes “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.”

A youth affiliate of Women’s March organized the event and has listed 1,855 planned school walkouts across the country, including Waterville Senior and Junior high schools, Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, Hampden Academy, Lewiston High School, Edward Little High School in Auburn, Casco Bay High School in Portland, and several others.

Rebar said that while the district will not allow a “walkout,” Upper Kennebec Valley High School will hold an “intermission” from 10 to 10:20 a.m. Wednesday, during which students who both support and do not support the initiatives espoused by the organizers of the walkout will be provided a space within the school where they can discuss their opinions. Students who don’t wish to participate can remain in the classrooms, where class will continue as usual.

“Students will be supported whichever of the three options they choose,” Rebar said.

Rebar and the school board’s decision is a stark departure from their prior stance. Rebar originally said it was not a school’s role to promote political viewpoints.

A letter published Feb. 28 on the district’s website advised that students who walked out of class and the building to participate in the event would be marked “absent without permission” and “subject to normal disciplinary procedures.”

Rebar said in a March 1 interview that she had not heard of any students planning to participate in the event but had received legal advice from the district’s attorneys, which prompted her to call a special school board meeting to discuss the issue.

In that meeting, the board raised issues about the danger of students having an announced presence outside of the building as well as giving preference to one ideology over another.

“The First Amendment prohibits governmental entities from viewpoint discrimination. Students and staff having views differing from those of the Walkout would have to have an equal opportunity to express their views. Scheduling a pause in the school day only for those supporting the goals of the Walkout would be legally problematic for the District,” Rebar wrote in the letter.

“Students and staff do not have a First Amendment right to disrupt or interrupt the school day for political advocacy,” she added.

Rebar did not respond to a message immediately Friday evening seeking comment about what prompted her and the board to alter their policy. However, holding a discussion period inside the building and allowing for all opinions to be heard presumably assuages concerns about safety and viewpoint discrimination.

Offering some rationale to the board’s flip, Rebar said, “As much as all of us would like to think that a tragic incidence of school violence would never happen here, there is no way to guarantee that, and that is what we consider when making our decisions.

“I hope this letter serves to provide common ground as we work together to protect and understand the challenges that our students are facing.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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