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Cuomo: Schools took "unconstitutional disciplinary action" against 'Walk-out' students

Calls to investigate schools that blocked exits
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Posted at 12:06 PM, Mar 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-15 13:28:59-04

In light of recent national student walkouts, Governor Cuomo today issued an open letter to NYS Education Department Commissioner Elia citing schools may have engaged in "unconstitutional disciplinary action."

The Governor has called Elia to direct schools to "cease unconstitutional disciplinary action against students and teachers who participated in gun safety walk-outs."

Here's what Cuomo cites in his letter: 

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.

The Governor goes on to show his support for the students who took part:

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.  

Commissioner Elia recently released her response to the Governor: 

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 a statement issued yesterday expressing praise and support from the Chancellor, the Board of Regents and me for 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

Read Governor Cuomo's full letter below: 

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

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