The Muscogee County School District’s administration has provided more details about how and why it conducted an alternative activity while prohibiting students from participating in the National School Walkout last week.
“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.”
After three Columbus residents voiced support for the petitioning students and criticized the administration during Monday night’s Muscogee County School Board meeting, chairwoman Kia Chambers asked superintendent David Lewis to “shed some light” on the controversy.
The “Speak Up! Sit In” event was arranged with input from principals, the superintendent’s cabinet and students, Lewis said. The purpose was to provide an “age-appropriate” opportunity to bring attention to this issue and to effect change, while involving all MCSD students in middle school and high school, he said.
Administrators at each middle school and high school selected two students to participate in the video conference with the legislators. The session was streamed into 247 classrooms across the district.
“Obviously, we couldn’t bring 14,000 students here to have that conversation,” Lewis said.
The district’s administration asked the principals to allow all students to submit questions, Lewis said. MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham said the approximately 75 submitted questions didn’t come from all of the 22 middle schools and high schools. The Ledger-Enquirer asked her which schools submitted questions and which ones didn’t.
“I do not feel that providing a listing, that divides our schools along the line of who submitted questions versus who did, is respectful of our students and/or personnel associated with those schools,” Parham wrote in an email Tuesday to the Ledger-Enquirer.
Parham grouped the submitted questions by category to weed out duplicates.
“Obviously, 75 questions in 45 minutes was not logistically possible,” Lewis said. “No questions were edited. No questions were censored. No questions were sanitized.”
Each group of student representatives chose from the submitted questions which ones to pose to the legislators, Parham said. If they had time, she said, they could ask additional questions, and the legislators asked the students questions.
MCSD gave the legislators the students’ submitted questions in advance, Parham said, so they could “ask some thoughtful questions that would provoke some dialogue.”
Several students, Lewis said, emailed him or told him in person that they “appreciated the process” and the legislators said they want to continue the dialogue. The Ledger-Enquirer requested those emails. Parham forwarded two from students, although their names are redacted. They said, in part:
▪ “This is a big step for student history in Georgia, and I hope that I can participate in more events like these,” one student wrote to Lewis on March 14. “... I am interested in politics, and doing it as a career is now set in stone due to today. I have so many ideas on how we can improve our school system, and I believe that the best ones who can give the Board their opinions and impressions on our school system is the students.”
▪ “The issue of school shootings is important to me and my friends and I think this was a much better way to really share our concerns than walking out of school, which really doesn’t accomplish anything,” another student wrote to Lewis on March 14. “I know people have different ideas about how to stop school shootings and it was clear to me today that no one way is going to solve the problem. I am glad we had the chance to speak with legislators and hear that they are also concerned about stopping them. I was especially glad that they want to have more meetings like the one today to hear from us. I think it is awesome that they want to hear from us students!”
Lewis told the board, “We were very clear on what the intent was, what the purpose was. We feel like it was successful and was accomplished. I’m very proud of our students, every one of them, as well as the schools they represented. I do feel like this is just the beginning.”
The superintendent said he would meet with his student advisory committee about this issue after spring break.
Nathan Smith, Theresa El-Amin and Carol Jameson are the Columbus residents who spoke to the board during the meeting’s public agenda. All of them criticized the “Speak Up! Sit In” event.
“This district has a longstanding thing about wanting to control every message,” Smith said. “... It’s a shameful day in this city.”
“You have to support the self-determination and critical thinking of young students,” El-Amin said. “That’s what we want in teaching and learning.”
Jameson called the alternative walkout activity a “good idea” that “went so wrong.”
“These kids feel betrayed,” Jameson said. “I don’t care if nobody else thinks they were betrayed. They are the better judge of that. … This school district has hurt these kids. They were taught that it’s OK to trick people, to be devious and deceitful, and that’s a despicable lesson, especially within the walls of their schools.”
Frank Myers, the board’s District 8 representative, said the MCSD administration doesn’t understand to whom the protest belongs.
“This demonstration, or these feelings, belong to the young people, and they were not allowed to express themselves,” Myers said. “We got shown up by a lot of jurisdictions around us, a lot of school systems. ... This was an embarrassment to this school district, the way this was handled.”
Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone countywide representative, said she attended the “Speak Up! Sit In” event and heard the legislators asking the students whether they had any additional questions. State Rep. John Pezold, R-Columbus, posted March 17 on Facebook this comment about the students’ complaints reported in the Ledger-Enquirer’s story: “Update: after giving out my cell phone number and email address asking for specific questions students wanted answers to, I’ve gotten exactly zero texts and zero emails.”
Cathy Williams, the board’s District 7 representative, said she also attended the video conference.
“I will acknowledge that perhaps not every school handled this in an empowering way for our student body,” Williams said. “… But, overall, I felt that morning that it was an incredibly empowering experience. I had student after student after student thank me, thank the district, for the opportunity to begin this dialogue, to begin this engagement with the lawmakers that can make changes to our laws.”
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. on March 14 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 that day from 9 to 9:45 a.m.
Two students walked out of Columbus High and two walked out of Hardaway High School — the only MCSD students to defy the ban, according to reports the administration has received, Parham told the Ledger-Enquirer. They received one-hour detention, she said.
El-Amin accused “personnel” at Midland Middle School of blocking the doors to keep students from walking out. She asked, “If it happened at Midland Middle, did it happen somewhere else?”
Nobody answered that question during the meeting. Parham told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Tuesday, “No employees were involved in any measures, such as blocking doorways or locking doors, preventing students from participating in the walkout.”
IF YOU GO
Pat Hugley Green, the District 1 representative on the Muscogee County School Board, said Columbus area legislators will be available to answer questions about school safety, among issues, at this event:
What: Columbus legislative delegation’s town hall meeting.
When: April 14, 12:30 to 3 p.m.
Where: City Services Center, Community Room, 3111 Citizens Way.