Hundreds of Worthington high school students walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14, into freezing temperatures and snow flurries as part of a coordinated national event to protest gun violence, but they received no protest from Worthington Schools teachers and administrators.
Despite the disruption at Thomas Worthington and Worthington Kilbourne high schools, district leaders said the demonstrations were not worth punishing.
District spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda said leaders never considered suspending or otherwise punishing students who participated.
“I don't know that there really was a discussion,” she said. “I think we just always assumed that (they would not be punished). I think it was not something we felt we should stop.”
Gnezda said other walkouts were staged at each of the district's elementary and middle schools, as well.
Superintendent Trent Bowers said the lack of punishment or attempts to dissuade students to stay in school comes from the district’s “long history of honoring student voice,” which he called “powerful.”
“We know that our schools work every day to improve and amplify student voice. Student voice is generally protected by the First Amendment,” he said in an email. “Our schools have a responsibility to help students navigate tough social situations and learn how to use their voice in an appropriate way.
“Our administrators engaged in dialogue with our student leaders about the importance in maintaining a peaceful environment and our students did so with no issues this morning. I'm proud of our students and how our schools handled the morning.”
Thomas Worthington principal Pete Scully was on hand for the demonstrations, asking adults and media to stay to the periphery so that students could have their moment.
In an email, Scully said the district has decided to “support student voice, regardless of what the message would end up being.”
“By making that decision, we were able to anticipate the size of the event, adequately staff and secure it, and prepare for ‘worst-case scenarios,’” he said. “Ultimately, I was impressed by the organization, the passion, and the respectful participation of those who decided to walkout.”
Scully also said the school was “supportive of those who disagreed or decided that the walkout was not for them,” and he was impressed with how all of the school’s students handled themselves.
“While we expected them to use their voice in school appropriate ways, I've learned that it is not possible to promote student voice and simultaneously control their message,” he said. “Instead, we prepared for the potential impact of those messages. Our kids appreciated the opportunity to speak and handled it better than most adults. It was a special thing to witness.”
In the crowd at Thomas Worthington, nine students spoke, addressing their classmates with a megaphone.
Those who spoke included seniors Lilia Eisenstein and Leah Kinzer, juniors Nat Hickman, Gayathri Mudigonda, Fafa Nutor, Emma Potter, Jonathan Tchounguen and Emma Weber and sophomore Dean Orloff.
At Worthington Kilbourne, principal Aric Thomas said about 200 students were on hand, and the dialogue was a bit less organized, with teachers and staff also giving the students space.
Thomas said students also wore tags where they wrote their reasons for walking out, a gesture he appreciated.
“I think that was a unique way for them to express unity, but also their reasons for walking out,” he said.
The speeches and demonstrations lasted about 30 minutes, and Gnezda said she and the district did not expect the walkouts to affect school after they were completed.
“We expect it to be a normal day,” she said.