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Gov. Cuomo to New York’s top education official: Stop schools from punishing students who walked out in protest

Rafael Perez, a student in New York City, walked out during a March protest against gun violence.
Rafael Perez, a student in New York City, walked out during a March protest against gun violence.
Christina Veiga

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on the state education commissioner to stop schools from disciplining students who participated in walkouts to protest gun violence.

In a letter released Thursday, he also pressed for an investigation into reports that some students were prevented from leaving their campus to join the demonstrations.

There are reports that students were disciplined at schools on Long Island, and that pickup trucks blocked protests in Schulyerville, north of Albany.

In response, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia issued her own letter praising the student activists for “bold leadership” and promised to investigate “any reports where the safety of students was put in jeopardy, as we always do.” But she did not directly address the governor’s call to protect students from being disciplined.

“I look forward to continuing a meaningful dialogue with you and our stakeholders to implement strategies at the state and federal levels to ensure all schools remain safe havens for children,” she wrote.

In his statement, Cuomo said it was a “terrible message” that students might face punishment for expressing their views, or that schools would not allow them to speak up.

“These actions, coupled with the peaceful manner in which the demonstrations were conducted, is something that should be lauded, not punished,” he said in the letter.

In New York City on Wednesday morning, an estimated 100,000 students left their classrooms in a national protest. Spurred by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that claimed 17 lives, Cuomo joined students from Leadership and Public Service High School in Lower Manhattan, lying on the ground and chanting during a “die-in” at Zuccotti Park.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also protested with students, endorsed the walkouts and the education department released guidance that spelled out minimal consequences for students who participated. And Elia also signaled before the protests took place that she would support any kind of informed activism by students.

“Involvement in government as a citizen is extremely important,” she said this week. “It is a basic value that we should be working [toward] and supporting.”

But in an ideologically diverse state, Cuomo cites reports of physically blocking campus exits to prevent students from leaving — which he called “an egregious safety violation” and also “unlawful.”

Below are the letters released by Cuomo and Elia.

Gov. Cuomo to Commissioner Elia

Dear Commissioner Elia,

Yesterday, I proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with brave students and faculty who spoke out against gun violence. History provides moments where real change is possible, and the thousands of students who participated in organized walk-outs all throughout the state are seizing the moment and admirably standing up for the safety of their classmates and students across the country.

In the last 24 hours, there have been several reports of New York State schools disciplining students and faculty for participating in yesterday’s historic events to stop gun violence. In at least one disturbing incident, it was reported that the school physically blocked the exits to prevent students from demonstrating.

These actions send a terrible message to New York’s children and are against constitutional free speech protections. I call on you to use SED’s authority to stop these schools, reverse course and cease any disciplinary actions.

Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech. Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional. Reports that schools may also discipline faculty are also highly concerning and would send a terrible message to our students.

The students who participated in the walk-out are trying to advance laws and actions that would save their lives, and many viewed their participation as necessary to their own safety. The scourge of mass shootings in schools is very real, and these students were taking proactive steps to protect themselves and their classmates. These actions, coupled with the peaceful manner in which the demonstrations were conducted, is something that should be lauded, not punished.

Additionally, I call on you to thoroughly investigate any reports of schools that blocked the exits to physically prevent students from leaving during the event. This an egregious safety violation and it is also unlawful.

Yesterday’s actions were a testament to the courage and leadership of New York’s students. As I said yesterday, these young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington. To punish or discipline them is inconsistent with the freedom of expression that we cherish. It would say more about the adults imposing discipline than it would about the students who exercised their rights to speak out.

Sincerely,

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Commissioner Elia to Gov. Cuomo

Dear Governor Cuomo,

Thank you for your letter. I stand with you in support of New York’s students who express themselves through free speech as I indicated yesterday commending these students for bold leadership.

I have discussed with school district superintendents, board members, teachers and others the importance of learning from this tragedy by engaging our students in an important civics lesson on the power of their own voices. We will investigate any reports where the safety of students was put in jeopardy, as we always do.

I am pleased so many of our state leaders are united in their commitment to address the issue of gun violence and school safety and thank you for your support of New York’s students. I look forward to continuing a meaningful dialogue with you and our stakeholders to implement strategies at the state and federal levels to ensure all schools remain safe havens for children.

Below, for your reference, is Chancellor Rosa’s and my statement praising the students who participated in yesterday’s national movement:

“Earlier today, in a peaceful, yet powerful display of unity and civic engagement, students across New York State, and the nation, walked out of their classrooms to demand action on two of the most pressing issues of our time – ensuring school safety and stemming the tide of gun violence. This is a national movement; it is real; and it is being driven by our students. As educators, we often talk about ‘teachable moments.’ These young people, united in peaceful protest to demand action by our Congress on gun violence, are turning tragedy into a teachable moment for our federal lawmakers. We commend these students for their bold example of leadership in action and call on Congress and lawmakers across the nation to heed their voices.”

Sincerely,

MaryEllen Elia

State Education Commissioner

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