ACLU sides with students in school protest

Students fighting for free speech rights on Oak Harbor campuses were recently backed by a powerful advocate which convinced the school district to amend its policy.

Attorney Rose Spidell from the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Superintendent Rick Schulte objecting to Oak Harbor High School’s “harsh disciplinary actions” and “censorship” during a campus-wide protest.

Last month, six students participated in a sit-in to appeal the school’s discipline of their classmate, who was given a one-year expulsion for allegedly selling marijuana at a location off school grounds. When the teens refused to return to the class, or leave the lunchroom, officials had the students arrested by Oak Harbor police for disrupting the school.

Later that day, other students held a peaceful protest by spreading around a petition and writing messages on T-shirts.

The ACLU letter dated Nov. 21 states, “Fearing that some students planned to conduct a walkout during the Veteran’s Day assembly that afternoon, school officials confiscated the petition and told students to remove their T-shirts or be sent home.”

The following Monday, a dean of students usurped copies of a student rights handbook, which were later returned by the principal.

Spokesman Doug Honig said the ACLU receives thousands of letters a year from around the state and not every case is investigated. The ACLU took action in Oak Harbor, he said, to remind staff that there must be a “substantial material disruption of schools” for officials to step in.

They wrote that the law is clear that expressions on a T-shirt or button is not the type of activity that generally disrupts the education process.

“Students may express themselves in ways that are critical of an administration and aren’t always comfortable for them. We wanted the administration to know that’s sometimes what free speech involves,” Honig said.

The ACLU strongly objected to the school equating the protest of harsh discipline to supporting drug use, the reason staff allegedly gave for banning speech. And although the point of the letter was to address actions against protesters, the ACLU also chastised the district for expelling the student accused of the drug crime.

“The ACLU shares the students’ objection to discipline imposed for conduct that occurred off campus, outside of the school’s jurisdiction,” the letter states.

Spidell’s letter made three requests: that the school provide training to school staff regarding students’ rights to freedom of expression; adopt a written policy requiring contact to parents before police are called and emphasizing that police should be called only as a last resort; and review disciplinary policies to clarify that students should not be suspended or expelled when an alternative form of discipline may adequately address the misconduct.

Schulte said the district has been cooperative. He pointed out that there is already a written policy about law enforcement; however, ACLU attorneys noticed one line in the policy wasn’t updated.

Oak Harbor’s policy read that parents are only notified for children 12 and under when police are called. The Washington State School Directors’ Association changed the policy to include all ages.

“I don’t know when the update occurred, but we missed it,” Schulte said.

Along with correcting the policy, Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon is meeting with high school administrators to review existing policies for First Amendment situations.

Schulte said all talks with the ACLU were positive and he is happy to see an updated policy.

There is no need for further actions by the ACLU, Honig said.

“It’s important that students have rights to express their views. Expressing views about policy issues is part of the way that students prepare to become members of our democratic society,” Honig said. “We are just watching to make sure student rights are respected.”

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