Dear Vermont School Administrators, Educators, and Officials:

A student movement has arisen in response to the tragic school shooting in Parkland last month and other recent mass shootings that have resulted in numerous casualties among young people. Here, young Vermonters are raising their voices, and the ACLU of Vermont has communicated with students, parents, and administrators requesting information about students’ speech rights. We have also had questions and a complaint about threatened school discipline for planned political action. We ask you to support student efforts to engage in the issues that have a direct impact on their lives and encourage a spirit of civic participation in the various forms it may take.

Students taking a stand to call for the change they seek is not new. High school students have been a driving force behind social justice movements for decades, to historic ends in the Civil Rights Movement and in ending the Vietnam War, to name just two. Right here in Vermont, then-middle-schooler Zachary Guiles successfully stood up for his right to express a political message at school. It takes courage for students to stand up for their beliefs, because so often it involves taking risks. Administrators are uniquely positioned to nurture a sense of social action in students by removing some of the barriers.

We understand the pressures you face – you work under many burdens: you are responsible for the education of our students and for keeping them safe. However, punishing students for exercising their civil rights runs counter to Vermont’s cherished traditions of democractic participation. As non-voting members of our society, public demonstration and grassroots organizing are some of the only means that young people have to represent their interests to elected officials and to influence change.

This is a rare moment – when a fundamental lesson in civics can move beyond the classroom and come to life. As educators, you can silence the voices of your students, or you can take full advantage of this moment, and nurture your students’ efforts to learn for themselves about participatory democracy. In this way, you can help this generation of students to develop into active and responsible citizens.

Outside of school, as you know, students enjoy the same rights to protest as others. During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions. Practically, this means:

  •  Students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or vulgar.
     
  • Students can’t be considered disruptive for wearing t-shirts, armbands, or other clothes or accessories that bear political viewpoints just because someone may disagree with that view.

As students plan walkouts to press for changes in policy, please bear firmly in mind:

  • The Constitution forbids disciplining students more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
     
  • The ACLU of Vermont may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishment than a classmate would for, say, ditching class to meet friends at a diner.

Instead of resorting to discipline, we hope your district exercises its discretion to embrace moments like these affirmatively as an opportunity for students to learn firsthand about civic engagement, no matter the cause at the center. Public schools are essential in educating young people about democracy, and that includes their role in enacting it.

Students’ actions during this political moment – and the lessons they learn – will stay with them throughout their lives. In recent days we’ve asked ourselves: What lessons should students take from this moment, and, as adults, what is our responsibility to them? Those answers are ever-evolving, but ultimately, we hold these principles: we want to foster civic participation in the next generation, and we strive to encourage young people to stand up against injustice. We hope you’ll share these goals and affirmatively seek ways to promote them in this moment, too.

Sincerely,

Lia Ernst
Staff Attorney

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