PEOPLE Explains: What Parents Should Know About Wednesday's National School Walkout Against Gun Violence
More than 185,000 students from more than 2,500 schools are expected to walk out of their classrooms across the country on Wednesday to protest gun violence — exactly a month after a former student fatally shot 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
National Walkout Day, which was put together by the organizers of the Jan. 2017 Women’s March, encourages peaceful protest for the duration of the walkout.
“There’s gun violence in our schools and on our streets and we want to show the members of Congress and other adults in our lives that we are fed up with being unsafe,” Madison Thomas, national college coordinator for Women’s March Youth Empower, tells PEOPLE. “We’re finally taking a stand and showing unified support for gun reform.”
Some school districts across the country have threatened disciplinary action against students who walk out.
Here are five things parents need to know about the nationwide protest — and potential consequences for students who walk out.
1. Students Will Walk Out for 17 Minutes — Honoring the 17 Florida Victims
At 10 a.m. local time, in every time zone across the country, students will walk out of class for 17 minutes — a minute for each of the victims who died during the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14.
“Parents should know it is a safe action for their students to take, and stand up for something that they feel strongly in,” Thomas says about the protest. “It is short but has a really large impact on empowering their child to find their voice, and use it to stand up for their beliefs.”
2. ACLU Lawyer: Any Penalty Must Be Proportional to Unexcused Absence
Different districts in different states have different rules for unexcused absences. ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner says it’s important for parents and students to know their school’s policy.
“They can’t impose a severe penalty for participating in the political activity when they would have imposed a mild penalty for another kind of absence,” Wizner tells PEOPLE. “If a student was to get expelled for a 17-minute or even two-hour absence one time from a public school, I would want to know about that. I think that would almost certainly be a constitutional violation.”
Instead, Wizner hopes children and parents will take the opportunity to discuss the history and importance of protesting.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
“We want young people not just to learn history, math and science, but learn citizenship and civic engagement. What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is young people succeeding where generation of adults have failed in fundamentally changing a conversation around a critical issue,” he said. “Sometimes breaking rules is a way to bring a lot more attention to an important issue — that’s the story of the civil rights movement in the south. ”
3. There Are Legal Resources for Students Who Are Disciplined
Some school districts have warned their students there will be consequences if they walk out of class on Wednesday. Wizner says the ACLU has been made aware of several instances and intervened.
“In the cases of the districts that have announced in advance they’re going to impose harsh punishments, the ACLU has already written letters to those districts reminding them of what the law is,” he says.
If anyone finds themselves receiving harsh treatment, he suggests they go to the ACLU website, or contact their local chapter. Additionally, the Women’s March website states the National Juvenile Defender Center will be staffing a legal referral hotline to connect students and/or their parents to local attorneys. The hotline number is 1-857-529-9373 (1-857-LAWYER3).
4. Broward County School District Supports Protest: ‘Such Occasions Are Teachable Moments’
Many schools are prepared for the walkout. Some districts sent permission slips home for parent approval while others have incorporated it into their curriculum.
In Broward County, where the Parkland shooting occurred, parents received a letter from Superintendent Robert Runcie explaining how the district plans to handle Wednesday’s protest and subsequent ones.
“Over the past few weeks, as we have worked to begin the recovery and healing process, students have been expressing their hurt, anger, disbelief and a flood of other emotions,” Runcie wrote in the letter to parents. “We are proud of our students’ focus and determination to turn their grief and outrage into action as they dedicate themselves to effecting positive change in this country.
• For more compelling True Crime coverage, follow our Crime magazine on Flipboard
He said there will be guidelines and adult supervision.
“Such occasions are teachable moments, during which students can demonstrate their First Amendment right to be heard,” he says.
5. Walkout Planned for April 20 on Anniversary of 1999 Columbine Shooting
The wave of support for laws to prevent gun violence continues to surge. The student-organized March For Our Lives will take place on March 24 in Washington, D.C. There will be hundreds of sibling marches held across the world, according to the march’s website.
On April 20, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that left 13 people dead and more than 20 wounded, a coalition of advocates — teachers unions, gun safety groups, civil rights groups and parent groups among others — have organized a nationwide walkout.
“We support every action being organized. We will be with you in the streets, in our statehouses, in Washington and at the ballot box,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stated in a press release.