Hamilton County Schools officials: Students will not be punished for walking out of class

Local high school students Gabby Logsdon, Allen Liv and Nikki Goldback speak with the media following a Chattanooga Student Leaders brainstorming session Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018 at 901 Lindsay Venue in Chattanooga, Tenn. The meeting included students and representatives from at least 10 Chattanooga area schools brainstorming ideas in response to the Florida shooting.

Though they are not officially endorsing student walkouts planned for March in response to the deadly Florida school shooting, Hamilton County Schools officials also will not punish students for taking part.

"Students that desire to participate in this walkout respectfully and responsibly will be allowed to participate," district officials announced.

Students across the country are organizing a National Student Walkout on March 14, one month after the Parkland, Fla., shooting. Students plan to walk out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes, a minute for each life lost in the shooting.

Locally, a group of students called Chattanooga Students Leading Change plans to hold a March for Our Lives event on Saturday, March 24.

"As a district, we are not endorsing a walkout; however, we understand the significance of recent events and our students' desire to have their voices heard and we will work with them to make this a safe and valuable learning experience," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, in a statement.

Previously, in an interview with the Times Free Press, Johnson said the district had to be mindful of student safety as well as the "very real issue" that is being raised by many around the country.

"We want to be mindful of both. We want to honor the very real issue that's at hand, but we also understand that we have a responsibility to keep students safe," Johnson said. "There's time for a call to action, there's time where something has to happen. ... I mean schools, have to be mindful of their security measures. I think there's a call for socio-emotional support for students. ... I think everyone really has to think about what it is we can do, and how we protect our children."

District officials released a set of guidelines to Hamilton County principals Tuesday, in anticipation of student participation in the national walkout.

The guidelines released include:

» Consider working with your student leadership groups to organize and plan for students who desire to take part in the walkout.

» Make sure your faculty is informed and that you are prepared with adequate staff to oversee the time.

» Encourage students to hold the walk-out indoors. Possibly the gym, cafeteria, auditorium, etc.

» Have student leaders plan an activity to remember students lost in the most recent incident in Florida.

» Ensure plans are in place for students who do not wish to take part in the walkout.

» Communicate with students and faculty after plans are in place.

"Every school is unique, and this is not an exhaustive list for school consideration," district officials said. "If schools need specific assistance in planning, central directors are assisting. The most important consideration for schools is to ensure that students are safe during these events."

Many in the community have been calling on schools to increase security measures to ensure the safety of their students recently, but many have also called for support of the young people trying to enact change.

Survivors of the Parkland shooting have launched the national movement by marching on Florida's Capitol and calling for legislators to support gun reform.

Chattanooga's Students Leading Change group held its first meeting Sunday in preparation for the March events. The group will meet again from 3-5 p.m. this Sunday at the Chattanooga Workspace.

Local advocacy groups Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice and UnifiEd held a roundtable discussion Monday night at Pilgrim Congregational Church to discuss gun violence and action steps - the main takeaway being the groups' support and desire to help students follow through with their plans for the walkouts and marches.

Johnson spoke candidly with the Times Free Press about the threat of violence today in schools and to children.

"The two places [that] you think have the most safe haven have just become two of the most troubled places - school and church. I mean, that's where people are getting killed now, and it absolutely blows my mind," he said. "There's got to be a call to action. Seventeen lives on top of all the other things that have happened. ... As a father, just to think about the safety of your children when you're sending them to school ... so I think that's where we've got to start."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.