LOS ANGELES — Ahead of Friday's March for Life events to demand action on school safety and gun control, the ACLU Foundations of California sent letters to 19 school districts in the state highlighting their obligation to ensure that students can attend schools where they can openly express themselves and that are supportive, welcoming, and safe.
The letters included the following guidelines for students and schools when it comes to student protest:
- Punishing students for political speech more harshly than for non-political speech is prohibited under the Constitution. Even threatening harsher discipline for political activity is against the law.
- Students cannot be suspended or expelled for participating in walkouts or off-campus protests. Under the California Education Code, missing a class is not a legitimate reason for suspension or expulsion.
- A student cannot be marked truant based on a single unexcused tardy or absence. Under California law, students are considered truant only if they miss three full days in a school year without valid excuses or miss a 30 minute period in a school day, also on three separate occasions.
- Students may not be punished for carrying banners or signs unless the depictions incite illegal activity or violence. Signs carried in the March protests with pictures of guns to protest gun violence were not legal grounds for punishment.
- School exits should not be locked to prevent students walking out to join a protest. Doing so presents a health and safety concern.
The ACLU sent similar advisory letters during the initial March for Life protest held on March 14. The ACLU since then learned that many school administrators commended students for their participation while others addressed student actions in ways that violated their rights.
"Some schools went so far as to provide spaces for students to express themselves, learn more about the issues, and engage in a vigorous debate from many different perspectives," said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, director of education equity at the ACLU Foundations of California. "Schools should continue to nurture an open exchange of ideas."
But the ACLU also received disturbing reports in which school staff allegedly disciplined, or threatened to discipline, students for engaging in political activity more severely than they ordinarily would for non-political activity.
For example, students at one campus had their ability to “walk” for graduation revoked as a result of participating in the March 14 protest. This response would violate the law if the school typically would not revoke that privilege for other students with a single unexcused absence. And in another example, one school threatened to arrest every student who participated in the walkout.
"That response is clearly unlawful," said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California chief counsel/Manheim family attorney for First Amendment Rights. "Disciplining students for engaging in political activity more severely than they ordinarily would for non-political activity violates the Constitution and state laws."
Today's advisory was sent to unified school districts in Corona-Norco, Elk Grove, Fresno, Hemet, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Moreno, Oakland, Oxnard, Ramona City, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Simi Valley, Tustin, Val Verde, and Ventura and the Adelanto Elementary School District.
Read the letters here:
Adelanto Unified School District
Corona-Norco Unified School District
Elk Grove Unified School District
Fresno Unified School District
Los Angeles Unified School District
Hemet Unified School District
Long Beach Unified School District
Moreno Unified School District
Oakland Unified School District
Oxnard Union High School District
Ramona Unified School District
San Bernardino Unified School District
San Diego Unified School District
San Francisco Unified School District
Santa Monica Unified School District
Simi Valley Unified School District
Tustin Unified School District
Val Verde Unified School District
Ventura Unified School District
See the ACLU's guide on students' rights to protest: MySchoolMyRights.com.