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Can Students Be Punished For Walking Out? One Florida Student Says She Was

Marylene Dinliana, 18, holds a sign that reads, "Stop Spilling Our Blood" during a protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Students from across the country are planning to participate in a coordinated national walkout on Wednesday in response to the high school shooting in Parkland.

School walkouts and protests have been happening on a smaller scale since the shooting on Feb. 14, and they’ve been met with mixed responses from school administrators on how to handle this new wave of activism on campus.

Mariah Skolinsky was moved to add her voice to the growing cries of young people who want action on gun reform one week after the shooting.

“I walked out of school because we're never heard,” said the 13-year-old who goes to Sebastian River Middle School in Indian River County.  “They act like we don't understand what's going on.

Listen to the radio story here.

She says the Parkland teen survivors and their activism in the aftermath of the shooting inspired her.

Mariah and her best friend walked out of Sebastian River Middle and tried to join a larger protest at the high school down the street.

“When we were at the high school, kids were like telling us they were proud of us because like we were from the middle school trying to get our voice out there,” she says.

But she and her friend were not allowed to participate in the activities at the high school. A police officer there arranged a ride back for the girls to return to Sebastian River Middle where they were each called into the principal’s office and got in trouble.

Mariah says for walking off campus they got indoor suspension for the rest of the day, they had to attend Saturday school-- and she was told she would not be allowed to participate in her eighth-grade grad adventure or school dance.

Mariah’s principal and Indian River County School officials  did not respond to WLRN’s request for comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida recently issued an open letter concerning students’ right to protest. In it, the organization calls on schools to use this wave of activism as a teachable moment by fostering debates on campus and also to respect the their students' legal right to walk out and protest.

“The Supreme Court in 1969 made it very clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” said  Melba Pearson,  the Florida deputy director of the ACLU.

She says if schools do mete out discipline for students walking out of classes it should likely mirror that of an unexcused absence.

“Schools cannot punish students in excess of what the normal punishment would be,” said Pearson, who added the ACLU will be fielding complaints from students and parents.

Some students say that since Parkland they feel they’ve been discouraged from walking out altogether.

“Our principal and our assistant principal and student council member in the 11th grade said that it would be best that we didn't walk out because of a safety issue,” says Romina Levin-Duran, an eighth grader at Miami Arts Charter, who says the directive not to walk out came one week after the Parkland shooting.

Miami Arts Charter Principal Alfred de la Rosa also wrote two separate emails to parents telling them the school did not support walk-outs.

In an email on Feb 20 he wrote, “ At a time when our teachers, counselors, administrators and parents are working to overcome last week’s tragedy, and to work on making our school safer, it is tremendously unhelpful to add to the disruption we have already experienced.”

De La Rosa told WLRN his concerns were about student safety and adequate supervision, but added some students did walk out the next day and were not punished for doing so.

“They have the right to protest peacefully without interference or repercussions,” he said in a statement.

Mariah Skolinsky, the eighth grader in Indian River County who did get in trouble, said she thought the school punished her more harshly than a student who skips class without a reason. 

At first, her mom Michelle Cox sided with the school -- a little.

“My response was that she shouldn't have left campus, so I told her that when she got home that I wanted her to write me a 500-word essay as to why she did what she did.”

Mariah’s essay read in part:

“As a young female I've discovered our voices are never heard. I saw this walkout as a chance to be heard to spread how I feel. We're always taught to keep quiet because our opinions never mattered in the past but it's my goal to make our opinions matter in the future. Starting with this walkout”

Cox said she was stunned that her daughter felt so passionately about this cause. She has since met with her daughter’s principal, who she says called the incident a ”misunderstanding.”  Mariah will be allowed to participate in her eighth-grade end-of-the-year school activities.

Mariah said she this experience has not deterred her. She's following in the footsteps of the Parkland survivors-- like Emma Gonzalez.

She will not be quiet. 

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nadege Greencovers social justice issues for WLRN.