Sonoma County Office of Education

Letter from County Superintendent Herrington on Student Walkouts

03/14/2018 -

When the unthinkable-a mass shooting on a school campus-happened yet again in Parkland, Florida, it shook the nation and brought a renewed focus to the need for ensuring student safety. We've seen the ripple effects of this in Sonoma County, as schools review their safety plans and respond to a spate of false threats.

Meanwhile, youths, frustrated with fearing for their safety at school, are taking matters into their own hands. Beginning March 14, I anticipate some students in Sonoma County will join students across the nation to walk out of their classrooms and raise their voices in school assemblies to advocate for school safety and stricter gun laws. As a former history and government teacher, I am encouraged to see our youngest citizens taking such an active role in their democracy. Students have a right to free speech under the First Amendment and California Education Code that we must support and uphold.

At the same time, we must remember that student speech is limited when it violates school rules, incites violence, or disrupts class. I encourage educators to strike a balance between protecting student free speech and upholding safety. The California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators urge educators to provide students with a secure venue and substantive activities where their voices can be heard on-campus. Should students leave campus to protest, I urge school staff to work together with parents and local law enforcement to ensure student safety. Teachers must also remember that they have an obligation to stay with any students who choose remain in class to learn.

When I ran for county superintendent of schools, I did not imagine that I would have to dedicate so many resources to safeguarding schools. I would much rather be advocating for innovative teaching methodologies and practices and helping our students heal from the fall fires than talking about active shooter drills. However, because this is our new reality, we must commit to making schools safe havens for our students in every way possible.

To this end, I want to reassure parents that student safety is a top priority at schools across Sonoma County. The Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) held an active shooter drill in 2016 to help county public safety agencies prepare for a shooting at a school and we are planning a series of trainings for Sonoma County school teams this summer. We will also be providing every teacher in the county with a Department of Homeland Security Active Shooter Pocket Guide. At the same time, SCOE continues to promote trauma-informed teaching methods and restorative practices that can help address student mental health and behavioral issues early-before they escalate.

Each public school is required to maintain and annually update a school safety plan, which helps schools prepare for emergencies. In addition, schools hold annual lockdown drills where they rehearse their response to an on-campus shooter or threatening individual. If you're concerned about how your student's school is preparing its teachers and students for a crisis, I urge you to talk to your school administration. While no amount of preparation can completely prevent tragedies like the one in Parkland, it can help mitigate them.

As our schools grapple with these difficult but vital issues, we must not lose sight of the fundamental goal of education: To provide a safe, nurturing, and inclusive environment where all students feel free to pursue their fullest potential and help build a brighter future.

Steven D. Herrington, Ph.D., is Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools.