Ryan McDonald

Mira Costa grapples with free speech and student safety ahead of rally

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Mira Costa High School Principal Ben Dale walks with students protesting the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Dale has announced a slate of activities for this Wednesday, when some have called for a nationwide student walkout. Photo by Parnia Mazhar

by Ryan McDonald

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. that claimed the lives of 17 people last month inspired calls for a nationwide student walkout on Wednesday. Students in the South Bay will be participating, as districts attempt to reconcile respect for students’ freedom of speech with the obligation to protect them from harm.

At Redondo Union High School, students will gather on Pacific Coast Highway at the west edge of campus. In Hermosa Beach, middle schoolers at Hermosa Valley will get in on the activism, with a slate of “walk in” activities. But nowhere has the push and pull been more apparent than at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. Amid rumors of a walkout, Principal Ben Dale has announced a Day of Expression for Wednesday, with a number of events designed to channel students feelings of frustration and fear.

“I think it’s important for students to be heard and to have a voice. They’re concerned and angry and scared. I’m trying to provide them that voice. I just don’t know what a walkout is going to do,” Dale said.

Dale said he wanted to support students need to be heard while taking their safety into account. But the decision has left some on the students feeling they had been co-opted.

“The students who want to participate in this and Dr. Dale have very different ideas,” said Matthew Gutierrez, president of Costa’s Young Democrats club.

On March 1, Dale sent an email to parents notifying them that the district was aware of brewing plans for a student walkout. “We worry that this walkout is occurring somewhere in Hawthorne, which will make it difficult for us to supervise, provide security, or in any way provide for student safety,” Dale wrote.

The reference to Hawthorne came from a posting on the website of the Action Network, a nonprofit linked to the Women’s March Movement. The website promised a posting for a “South Bay LA Schools Walkout” to take place in Hawthorne at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. The event was created by Jenni Ito, identified on the website as a Redondo Beach resident.

In an email sent out Tuesday morning by Ito via the Action Network, a specific location had still not been decided on. Interviews with several students indicated that students were thinking of walking to Manhattan Beach City Hall, and later switched the destination to Hermosa Beach’s City Hall.

As of Monday evening, about 200 students were planning to walk onto Artesia Boulevard at the southern border of campus. A poster circulating on social media asked students to “walk out of class” at 10 a.m. and meet in front of the school office.

The Supreme Court has long held that students do not shed their First Amendment protections when they step on campus, but that administrators may take broader steps than would be permissible for, say, a rally in a public park, in order to protect school operations. In a foundational 1969 case, the high court said that an Iowa high school did not have the right to prevent students protesting the Vietnam War from wearing black armbands, without evidence that the the demonstration “substantially interfered” with school discipline and the learning environment of other students.

Across the nation, districts have responded to walkout rumors in wildly different ways. According to a story published this week by the Associated Press, the principal of a high school outside Houston threatened to suspend for three days any student who walked out Wednesday, even if the student got parental permission, drawing condemnation on social media; others have been more supportive, and many universities have announced that they will not negatively factor discipline associated with walking out into a students’ application.

The ASSA, the national School Superintendents Association, has spent the past two weeks attempting to help districts address the issue. The organization says it supports the National Day of Action to Stop Gun Violence in Our Schools, but “is NOT affiliated with any of the formal or organized walkouts.” Superintendents across the nation are “balancing their obligation to educate their students and support their community and students First Amendment rights” with the obligation to enforce state laws, “which can include attendance requirements and school participation.”

Dale followed the March 1 email to parents with the announcement of a planned “Day of Expression” to take place at the same time as the walkouts. On Wednesday, students will be able to record a 17-second video message, decorate the quad with sidewalk chalk, and create a protest poster on one of 500 pieces of poster board that the school will make available. Staff will also be planting 17 roses planted on campus. At 10 a.m., everyone would be invited to the “Mustang Mall” for a 17-second moment of silence, and a reading of the names of the Parkland victims. The school band will then play a requiem.

Students at Redondo Union prepare signs ahead of Wednesday’s national day of action on gun violence. Photo by Julie Vasquez

But Wednesday’s schedule represents a scaled down version of what was initially proposed. In a message posted to the school’s website and included in the daily bulletin sent out to students, the school promised a debate between the Young Democrats and Young Republicans, and an “open forum” for poetry and music through the school’s Poetry Out Loud organization. Both have subsequently been cancelled.

Multiple students told Easy Reader that the Poetry Out Loud event was announced without notifying the faculty advisor, English teacher Diana Sieker. In an email, Sieker, a former Mira Costa Teacher of the Year, said that she had not “officially agreed to participate” at the time the event was announced, and that she took issue with planning an event at that time.

“My ultimate reason for not participating was because, like the students, I feel like the orchestration of the event thwarts our students’ participation in the national walkout, especially considering the timing of the moment of silence,” Sieker wrote. “I did not think it was fair to make students choose between participating in a moment of silence and participating in a national walkout.”

Gutierrez, of the Young Democrats, is planning to head to Artesia on Wednesday morning. He said the planned debate with the Young Republicans was “thrown upon us.” Gutierrez said he told Dale that the Young Democrats would be happy to participate in the debate, just not on the date chosen. Gutierrez said that he felt pressure to accede to the debate, because Dale had reached out to local elected officials: Mayor Amy Howorth said she plans to attend, and Dale reached out to representatives from the office local state senator Ben Allen. But Gutierrez and others ultimately declined to participate, citing the historic moment for students.

“We’d rather have that be the story than that we were bickering while everyone else was walking out,” he said.

Dale attributed the change in schedule to the difficulty of trying to schedule something that would typically be planned months in advance to the short time table school staff had to respond to walkout rumors. He said that aspects of tomorrow may have been handled “clumsily,” but that the important thing was providing a forum for students.

“The key to this is the kids getting their voices out there. They won’t care if it’s here or City Hall or Hawthorne: the kids just want to be heard,” Dale said

The primacy of student voices is especially critical because the responses from surviving students at Stoneman Douglas have been arguably the most significant part of the ensuing national conversation over school safety. Following interviews on CNN and other national news networks, student David Hogg was accused by right-wing conspiracy theorists of being a “crisis actor,” an allegation later repeated by an aide to a Florida state legislator. An impassioned speech by Emma Gonzalez helped the Stoneman Douglas senior rack up more than one million Twitter followers.

Alex Le is president of Reflections, Mira Costa’s literary journal, which will be assisting with the poster making activity on Wednesday. He said he was appreciative of Dale going out of his way to have an event for students. But he too, was surprised to hear that his group would be participating, and worried Wednesday’s event was an attempt to paper over legitimate issues that students had.

“Personally, I think it would be much, much more meaningful to everyone if the administration decided to open up and start having an actual transparent dialogue with the student body. Closing the gap between student and administration has always been a very neglected issue at Costa. But as it stands now, this event just feels corporate,” Le wrote in a text message.

In his tenure at Costa, Dale has hardly been an ardent opponent of activism. At last year’s graduation, he used his address to the class of 2017 to make an impassioned plea for dedicating life to service, not just making money. And in 2016, on the day after the election of President Donald Trump, Dale walked with a group of students who marched from Mira Costa to Manhattan Beach’s City Hall. (Several students speculated that the planned events were an effort to avoid the criticism that followed the election walkout; Dale denied that this was the motivation for the Day of Expression, and said that parent response to his actions after the 2016 election was mostly positive.)

Those not in class on Wednesday, Dale said, will be marked absent. But he said that the event signaled that adults were both stepping up, and listening to students.

“They’ve got the adults saying, We stand with students, We are ready to partner with you in getting the message out. This is us providing students an authentic and meaningful voice. Isn’t President Trump in L.A. tomorrow? He’s invited. He’s welcome to come and hear what the students have to say,” Dale said.

This story has been updated to reflect comments from teacher Diana Sieker.



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