ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked state education officials Thursday to investigate reports that some New York schools prevented students from taking part in Wednesday’s nationwide student walkout to protest gun violence.
Cuomo appears to be citing a Leader-Herald article that was printed in Thursday’s paper in which school officials had the Gloversville Police Department and staff at the exits to “redirect” students during the walkout.
In a letter Cuomo sent to Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, he called on her to look into any reports of schools blocking exits so students couldn’t leave.
Cuomo called such actions “an egregious safety violation” and unlawful. His letter mentioned reports of schools in New York state disciplining students and faculty for participating in the event, and Cuomo asked Elia to use her authority “to stop these schools, reverse course and cease any disciplinary actions.”
In social media posts and in messages sent to the Leader-Herald, some GHS students reported to their parents that they wanted to participate in the walkout, but that they were blocked from leaving the building.
One student told her parents that the “police, teachers and mayor blocked all the doors.”
High School Principal Richard Demallie said today in a post on the school’s website that no student was blocked from walking out on Wednesday.
“Students from across the country participated in school walkouts on March 14 to protest school violence in the wake of the tragedy at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month,” Demallie writes. “Given the widespread publicity in advance of yesterday’s National School Walkout, Gloversville High School leaders felt that a walkout, during which students leave the school building and are unsupervised, could create an unnecessary risk to students.
“We are responsible for keeping students safe and out of harm’s way to the very best of our ability when they are in our care,” said Demallie. “While I fully support students’ First Amendment rights, the best way for us to ensure their safety was for students to remain inside the building.
Demallie said at the request of students, GHS held a moment of silence and rang a chime 17 times in memory of the 14 students and three educators who lost their lives
“No student was denied the right to leave the school during the walkout, and the adults were there to ‘redirect’ the students,” Demallie said Wednesday.
Gloversville Enlarged School District Superintendent Robert DeLilli said the police officers and school staff were positioned at the exits to help students in making the right decision.
“The purpose of posting adults at the exits was to assist students in decision making,” said DeLilli.
Superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services Patrick Michel responded to Cuomo’s release today saying Cuomo has the right to his opinion, but school districts have to follow the policies when students walk out.
“He has a right to his opinion, however, school districts all over the state have policies and procedures and have to follow them,” Michel said. “If the district’s policy is to punish students that walk out they have to do so. I don’t understand why we’re asking students to do an unsafe thing to protest for school safety.”
Michel said that he had advised administrators across the local school districts to keep students indoors for alternative events, but not to try to stop them if they tried to walk out.
Michel said that the director and assistant director of Career and Technical Education were posted near the two entrances to BOCES Wednesday, to discourage students if they tried to walkout saying it wasn’t a good idea to go out where they’re most vulnerable, but not to stop them.
“Here at BOCES nobody got up to walk out,” Michel said. “I just want to point out that this a non-issue for us. Nobody left their classroom.”
Cuomo said in his directive for an investigation into how New York schools handled the walkout said even disciplinary measures should not have been enacted.
“Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional,” Cuomo said in his letter.
The Daily Gazette reported that several students from Canajoharie were disiplined for walking out on Wednesday.
Fonda-Fultonville Central School District allowed students to participate in the walkout and district superintendent Thomas Ciaccio, joined the students in the walkout.
The district had counselors available for the students to talk to and administrators were on hand to supervise the students.
Ciaccio later released a letter saying he was “proud” of the students and maturity they displayed during the walkout.
Elia responded Thursday in a letter to the governor that she too supported the students who exercised their free speech rights, and that her agency will investigate “any reports where the safety of students was put in jeopardy, as we always do.”
Her letter didn’t address Cuomo’s request that disciplinary actions against students and faculty be overturned.