The day after the Muscogee County School District conducted an alternative activity while prohibiting students from participating in the National School Walkout, an online petition calls the video conference with state legislators a “sham” and has attracted more than 160 signatures.
Wednesday morning, selected students from each MCSD middle school and high school gathered in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. From 9 to 9:45 a.m., they questioned members of the Columbus area legislative delegation about school safety and gun control while the video conference was streamed into 247 classrooms across the district.
Some of the student representatives, the petition claims, said their questions were “scripted” — and contradicted the purpose of the “Speak Up! Sit In” event, which MCSD superintendent David Lewis had said would be a “civics engagement activity that we believe will provide students with a safe and appropriate forum in which to express their thoughts and concerns.”
The Ledger-Enquirer asked Lewis for his reaction to the petition and the criticism. MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham replied in an email Thursday, “The questions were neither scripted nor censored. They were presented as provided from students across the District. In the interest of time, questions were grouped into categories to give all of the middle and high schools equal representation within the allotted time frame.”
On the one-month anniversary of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students at thousands of schools across America walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. Wednesday for 17 minutes to honor the 17 victims and call for stronger gun control laws. MCSD, citing safety concerns, warned students they would be subject to disciplinary action if they walked out and instead staged the video conference.
Two students, Sarah Brooks and Sakeli Givens, walked out of Columbus High on Wednesday — the only MCSD students to defy the ban — and said they received detention. One schoolmate, Gwyn Rush, started the petition after watching the video conference and feeling disappointed.
“Some student representatives revealed that their questions were scripted,” the petition says. “... We were told our voices would be heard, but instead they were censored, pacified, and met without substantial answers. Frankly, it felt more like a sham and an opportunity for state legislators to get positive press coverage.”
One of the student delegates who participated in the video conference, Patrick Chappel of Columbus High, echoed the petition’s allegations.
“We were not allowed to engage in a thoughtful discussion,” Patrick told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email. “We were given questions and told to ask them. That is not political engagement, that is not what this movement was about, and quite frankly it shows that the Speak Up! Sit In was merely a cover to stop students from walking out.”
He said he was “ashamed” to have represented his school in the event. “We can not allow ourselves to be silenced this easily,” he wrote. “I saw, in person, Muscogee County’s idea of political engagement, and I think that it is time the students of CHS show them what real engaged students can accomplish.”