Computech Middle School students won't be stopped from joining in national protests against gun violence on Wednesday — but they can't mention guns.
Roan Gordon, 13, and other student government leaders at the Fresno Unified magnet school have been planning an event for National School Walkout Day, where students across the country plan to leave class for 17 minutes to call for stronger gun laws and honor the victims of last month's Florida school shooting.
But Roan said Computech principal Andrew Scherrer "highly encouraged" the students to make the event only a memorial for the victims and shy away from discussing gun policy.
"It was very clear that they did not want to make it political. Initially, we wanted to link arms and talk over the loud speaker and they said we can't say anything about guns because the school can't take a stance on guns," Roan said. "I asked if someone brought a poster that said something anti-gun, what would happen, and they said they can't take it away but it would discourage them from allowing us to do something like this in the future."
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The school district told the Bee the decision to keep the mention of guns out of Computech's event was made after consulting students and staff.
While other Fresno area schools are scheduling events for 10 a.m. — a time set by the national organizers — Computech will offer a moment of silence and create memorial posters during lunchtime at 1 p.m. That's an attempt to distance the event from the national anti-gun movement, said Roane's father, Doug Gordon.
According to Gordon, Scherrer said a large number of teachers voiced opposition to the planned event "on the grounds it might convey an anti-gun message." In a letter written to Scherrer on March 9, Gordon, an attorney, alleges the school's actions are unconstitutional and infringe on students' right to free speech.
"They want it to be gun neutral. They want activities that are non-political. My thought is, what's wrong with politics?" Gordon said Tuesday. "They're learning about the Constitution right now. They just took a test last week on the Bill of Rights. It's astonishing to me that nobody sees the irony in that."
Roan said Scherrer was initially supportive of the students' walkout plans, but teachers spoke out against it. She said now, more than ever, students need teachers' support, pointing out that she recently skipped school out of fear following local copycat gun threats that came after the Florida shooting.
"I felt very unsafe at my school (after the shooting), and the fact that our teachers weren’t going to allow this peaceful protest made me push for it more because it just feels like our voice is totally being lost," she said. "It kind of seemed like the teachers themselves are pro gun."
In a letter sent to parents, Scherrer reflects on being in high school during the Columbine shooting, and said he supports students expressing themselves, but that "precious instructional time" would be lost during a walkout and that a protest is a safety concern.
Speaking on behalf of the school, a Fresno Unified spokesman said the district supports students' right to free speech and that the decision to urge students to avoid discussing guns was based on input from other students.
"Students worked with the staff and collectively decided to express solidarity and not do something potentially political. They agreed not to mention guns because not everybody wanted to participate and they felt mentioning guns was really going to become a political conversation instead of one about solidarity," said FUSD spokesman Miguel Arias.
"We're supportive of schools making a choice with their student body and their teachers. This is clearly an issue that impacts everybody."
While some Fresno schools have said there will be no repercussions for students who participate in Wednesday’s events, Computech will still mark students absent from a class if they walk out at 10 a.m. — which both Roan and Gordon say is unfair.
Arias said that is merely for safety concerns. "Student won't be punished for walking out of class. They’ll just record the fact they walked out," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been advising schools that while they can discipline students for missing class, minors have a right to peacefully assemble — and can't be punished more harshly based on their political message.
"We're still planning to walk out," Roan said Tuesday.