Superintendent Weighs in on Wednesday’s Student Protests in D.C., Threats Against Schools

Superintendent Weighs in on Wednesday’s Student Protests in D.C., Threats Against Schools

MCPS can't protect students if they leave campus, Smith writes

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Superintendent Jack Smith

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Schools Superintendent Jack Smith on Thursday addressed an array of student safety issues, from the walkouts this week to the increase in threats since last week’s shooting at a Florida high school.

Smith wrote in a letter to the community that Montgomery County Public Schools supports all of the students who have turned to activism and civic engagement in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. But he also highlighted the safety risks in leaving school property for demonstrations, such as the protest that drew hundreds of MCPS high schoolers to the U.S. Capitol during class time on Wednesday.

“MCPS does not have the staff or resources to ensure students are safe during the school day when they are not on a school campus,” he wrote in the letter.

Before the planned walkout this week, principals warned high schoolers that those who missed class for the protests would receive unexcused absences. As an alternative to the off-campus demonstrations, some also created in-school opportunities for students to voice their perspectives on safety and violence.

At the same time, many elected leaders and people inside MCPS expressed pride after seeing more than 1,000 students descend on Washington, D.C., to call for action on gun violence.

“MCPS was deeply concerned for their safety if they chose to leave school grounds without supervision,” school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse wrote in a Facebook post. “No one wants to potentially put our kids in harms way and not be able to protect them. But the kids don’t feel safe anywhere anyway. And they expressed that. Loudly and clearly.”

Ortman-Fouse wrote that she went to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to listen to the students and praised the teens for their passion, decorum and strength. 

County Council member Tom Hucker wrote on Twitter that he was “very proud” of Montgomery Blair High School students who exercised their First Amendment rights by staging the walkout. Students at other county high schools in Silver Spring, Rockville and Bethesda also walked out of class and traveled to the Capitol.

Blair teacher Samir Paul took a day off work to participate in the rally as a private citizen and said seeing the crowd of young people gave him hope for the future.

Richard Montgomery teacher Brian Donlon said Thursday the educators in his circle were also supportive of the high schoolers who marched across D.C.

“I wish I could’ve walked out with the students myself yesterday,” he said. “I think the bigger story is the kids who are afraid to come to school. I was sitting in the lunch room with teachers, and we were talking about how we were missing a lot of kids. We know there’s a lot of anxiety out there.”

On Wednesday, as students were heading downtown to advocate for gun reform and increased school safety, two county public schools were evacuated for bomb threats. After investigating the situations, Montgomery County police deemed Walter Johnson and Winston Churchill high schools safe and allowed students to return to class.

In his letter, Smith acknowledged the recent rise in threats toward schools in Montgomery County and across the nation.

“While most of these threats have proven not to be credible, we take each report seriously and work closely with the Montgomery County Police Department to investigate,” he wrote.

Smith said he understands the anxiety created by the threats and also the Feb. 15 arrest of a student charged with carrying a loaded handgun into Clarksburg High School.

“MCPS remains committed to ensuring students are safe in our schools,” he wrote.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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