Walkout: Be flexible as students take a stand

Policies are made to be updated.

With respect to the March 14 student walkout, and the Hood River County School District’s stance on the event, we offer these observations:

The Oregon Education Association position paper issued by the district makes it very clear, with minimal legal mumbo-jumbo, that staff members’ free speech rights on political matters are extensively constrained. “Educators have little if any First Amendment protection in this situation,” the memo states.

The district has taken a measured and, for now, reasonable, approach. However, the district’s own policy on “Staff Participation in Political Activities” (last updated in April 2015) is far more open to interpretation. It states, in part, “District employees may exercise their right to participate fully in affairs of public interest and county, state and national level on the same basis as any citizen in a comparable position in public or private employment and within the law.”

Certainly a lot to unpack there — what does it really mean? — not the least is that it differs greatly from the far more restrictive OEA advice.

Today, our society is at a distinct moment. We may be about to witness an act of political activism never before seen, though it does remain to be seen how many students actually walk out and what they do with the opportunity.

The fact is, young people are as motivated as we have seen in many years to take political steps for something they view as a critical discussion for the sake of their safety, the community’s safety, and the sanctity of public places.

So what should be the response when Superintendent Dan Goldman, within the accepted confines of his duties, implies that the walkout is a “disruption to instruction”?

Or is the walkout itself instruction? The district should look upon it as a teachable moment, when the students are self-educating and, yes, teaching all of us something.

We certainly hope students will respect the moment and stay together, on campus, and return to class after the 17-minute walkout is done. We also hope that the district will refrain from disciplining any staff members who make a reasoned decision to stand with the students for those 17 minutes. It is important that the students see that their elders are upholding their right to political activism and perhaps even learning from it themselves.

Policy, within reason, must take a secondary role to principle, and district needs to demonstrate flexibility in what is a potentially historic moment.

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