It is a dark day in the history of America when an eighth-grader commits suicide after participating in a student walkout, protesting anti-immigrant legislature. On March 30, Anthony Soltero -- an organizer of his school's walkout -- shot himself in the head after the administration of De Anza Middle School in Ontario, Calif., threatened Soltero with a three-year prison term, forbid his involvement in the graduation ceremonies and threatened his mother with a fine.
Rallies across the country began in response to the proposed federal bill H.R. 4437, which would penalize 11 million illegal immigrants as felons. Anthony, a 14-year-old student, helped organize a student walkout in the week following the 1 million-strong March 25 demonstration in Los Angeles opposing the legislation. In Los Angeles County alone, over 8,500 students walked out to protest, and many now confront harsh disciplinary consequences.
The abuse of students skipping school to engage in political activism and exercising their constitutional right to free speech needs to stop. Democratic principles are rarely protected by young people sitting behind their desks. From the Civil Rights movement to the environmental movement, youth have been at the forefront of fighting for social justice.
The months of March and April found city streets crowded with young people, from Detroit to Los Angeles, doing exactly what our civic duties call us to do -- if we don't like laws being passed in our name, we speak up.
Nativo Lopez, the organizer of the March 25 demonstration in Los Angeles and president of the Mexican American Political Association, spoke out in support of Soltero and his family on Counterpunch.org:
"It's fine if they read passages from the Constitution, the history of the country, biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- who the English, back in the era of the American Revolution, accused of terrorism," Lopez said. "But then these children who are willing to practice these same precepts and theories can be reprimanded for actually living the Constitution."
What rights does a high school student have when she walks out of the school to protest? Under the California Education Code Section 48950 students who are engaging in free speech outside of the campus are protected by law:
"School districts operating one or more high schools and private secondary schools shall not make or enforce any rule subjecting any high school pupil to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside of the campus, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article 1 of the California Constitution."
In an overview of the "Student Free Speech Rights," by the National Lawyers Guild, the questions of concern over the consequences of skipping school are also addressed:
"Students who participate in walkouts should not be subject to any punishment different from the punishment normally used when students miss school. It would violate the First Amendment for students who leave school to attend an anti-war protest to receive harsher punishment than students who leave to go to a Dodger baseball game, for example."
The laws may vary among different school districts and states, but generally the law is also clear that suspension is not an appropriate punishment for unexcused absences. Section 48900(v) of the California Education Code states:
"It is the intent of the Legislature that alternatives to suspensions or expulsion be imposed against any pupil who is truant, tardy, or otherwise absent from school activities. [S]uspension shall be imposed only when other means of correction fail to bring about proper conduct."
Skipping school in itself does not warrant punishment. It is not a violation of federal laws either to skip school, except involving "truancy." Truancy is defined as at least four "unexcused" absences in a month by a student between the age of 5 and 16. There are various degrees of truancy, but generally skipping school does not fall under the category of truancy and is not unlawful.
The National Lawyers Guild created a specific site protecting the rights of youth who walk out of school stating, "No discipline if all you did was walk out, protest, or speak up." The web site is effective at highlighting key points for youth rights, including information on exceptions to receiving a citation outside of school.
Soltero and his family are in a period of grieving over the death of their son before pressing any charges against the school administration. Anthony's mother, Louise Corales, who spoke out at her son's funeral said in a moment of mourning, "[Anthony was] a great son. He was just fighting for our rights."
Students engaging in activism and demonstrations stand in our nation's greatest classroom. In a society still rising from the age of corporal punishment, we must welcome this brave civic engagement. Skipping school to protest is a justifiable act. We need to secure students' rights and their central place within our communities. We must stand beside them, or at least get out of the way.
For more information on your rights to skip school to protest, check out Schoolwalkouts.info created by the National Lawyers Guild or refer to "School Discipline: A Guide for Students & Parents," an ACLU handbook on suspension and expulsion in California public schools.
Paul Rathgeb is the founder of Natural Learning, a journal of Olympia Free School. His recent project is RiseOut, a weblog supportive of a young person's choice to drop out of school.