AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As students across the country protest gun violence, schools have reacted in different ways. Some have tried to crack down, even threatening to suspend the protesters. But many colleges are sending students the opposite message. They're encouraging and congratulating the teens' activism. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Since last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead, the wave of student protests has been building.
VIKIANA PETIT-HOMME: So if you are in this room, we want you to help plan this movement because...
SMITH: Vikiana Petit-Homme, a Boston Latin Academy junior, led an organizing meeting in Boston last night urging students to join a national walkout planned for March 14.
PETIT-HOMME: ...Yeah, so can we please split up, groups of three and four? Logistics. Finance.
SMITH: But some students here say their schools are discouraging their protests, like New Mission High School junior Ariyana Jones.
ARIYANA JONES: Teachers, like, will tell you straight up, like, if you were to walk out, you would get written up and suspended. And they are trying to intimidate students. And I feel like it's working because they don't want to get that on their record or get in trouble period.
SMITH: Other schools have sent explicit threats in writing. The superintendent in Needville, Texas, posted a warning on Facebook forbidding demonstrations during school hours and threatening three-day suspensions for anyone taking part. The post has since been taken down and the school declined to comment, but the warning got students worried and lawyers involved. Texas ACLU attorney Kali Cohn says the hard-line approach is unconstitutional.
KALI COHN: That's really what that is, is it's retaliation for a student expressing their First Amendment rights.
SMITH: Cohn says the crackdown also flies in the face of schools' mission as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court to prepare young people to be engaged citizens. As it turns out, colleges couldn't agree more.
JENNIFER WALKER: From a Brandeis perspective, I think speaking up and speaking out is a good fit for our campus culture.
SMITH: Brandeis University Dean of Admissions Jennifer Walker says if a student is suspended for peaceful protest not only will it not hurt their chances of getting accepted, it may actually help.
WALKER: Having the bravery to stand up, to organize people to stand up for what they believe, that takes a lot of courage. And that is certainly something that I think would be applauded here.
SMITH: Scores of other colleges are sending a similar message telling students they do not have to choose between speaking out and getting in, as MIT put it. It all seems to have prompted some high schools to soften their stance. In Virginia, Prince William County schools had sent out a letter warning that students who disrupt class or leave school without permission will face disciplinary action. After a bit of an uproar, officials said they sent the wrong message and promised to be flexible. But Associate Superintendent Phil Kavits says schools have to balance students' rights with students' safety.
PHIL KAVITS: There have been examples in the past where people have done walkouts where they've perhaps decided to march down busy streets. And when they do that, we've lost the ability to keep them safe.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: If you - did you sign it? Yeah, so, like, I'll contact you.
SMITH: In Boston, high schoolers gathered last night were still waiting for an official school policy on protests when school superintendent Tommy Chang popped in unexpectedly. He offered his encouragement.
TOMMY CHANG: I just wanted to say it's great that you guys are doing this work. I can't stay. I just want to say hello.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Thank you.
CHANG: OK. OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The kids are concerned about getting disciplinary action if they walk.
CHANG: They will not be disciplined.
SMITH: That was welcome news to students like Vikiana Petit-Homme. But she says no official policy would've stopped her anyway.
PETIT-HOMME: At this point, we've seen that the adults are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is keep us safe. So we're done going to them and asking for permission.
SMITH: Protests will be peaceful, Petit-Homme says, but some disruption is needed to get attention and make change. And no matter what, there will definitely be a college essay out of it. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOT CHIP SONG, "THE WARNING")
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