Responding to Student Protests and Demonstrations in Schools and School Districts

Classrooms are often the first settings in which students learn what it means to be civically engaged; and when students choose to use demonstrations and protests as a tool for civic engagement, school buildings, grounds, and communities are often selected as the setting. The response of students across the country to the February 14, 2018, active shooter situation at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has drawn attention to one type of student demonstration and protest in particular—school walkouts—and the need for education agencies to prepare and respond.

On March 14 and April 20, 2018 (and on various other dates during the spring semester), students across the country plan to leave their classrooms and school buildings to protest gun violence in honor of the students and staff members who lost their lives last month, and to commemorate the anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Our research has shown that the response from education agencies to these planned walkouts has been varied. Some school districts are using these events as opportunities to teach and host discussions with students and the whole school community about violence and other key topics in school safety and emergency prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery. Others may be exploring how to handle lost instructional time and disciplinary issues that may result from the demonstrations. Many education agencies are likely working with community partners to balance the need to ensure continuity of learning and operations, as well as whole school community safety and security, while still encouraging the interest among youth in civic engagement and school safety.

Demonstrations and protests like school walkouts impact the entire school community, including students, teachers, staff, and families. From safety and mental and behavioral health to continuity of learning and operations, schools (public and nonpublic) and school districts may have to address and support students and staff in a variety of areas when responding to planned demonstrations and protests. For school administrators and emergency planning teams, this can seem daunting. However, pre-planning—especially with community partners—using the six-step planning process outlined in the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans (School Guide) can help ensure the whole community stays safe.

Download our NEW fact sheet to get recommendations on incorporating plans to respond to student demonstrations in school emergency operations plans.