School board debates wisdom of allowing students to plan walk-outs on March 14

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Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas

MANCHESTER, NH – Several school board members on Monday night chided Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas for sending a letter out to parents and guardians that condoned a request by students wanting to participate in a planned National school walk-out on March 14. The action by students is part of a national movement among high school students to honor the lives of the 17 Florida students who were killed by a gunman inside their school. It is planned for 10 a.m., and would last for 17 minutes.

The issue was first raised by board member Jimmy Lehoux, who told Vargas he put the board in a precarious position by issuing a letter without consulting them. He said he received more than 100 phone calls from people, many in reaction to an open letter Lehoux shared on social media regarding his personal position on the walk-out.

Ward 8 School Committee member Jimmy Lehoux.

Board member Lisa Freeman acknowledged that Vargas and other school officials were left “between a rock and a hard place” – between acknowledging that students were emotionally hurting from the act of terror that caused the loss of 17 innocent lives, and upholding a district-wide policy on student conduct.

Board member Rich Girard followed Freeman’s lead in stressing that “we are the adults in the room,” and that it was a time for adults to guide children toward answers, not activism.

Vargas defended his decision to support student requests that would allow them to join in the national event by walking out of class in solidarity for 17 minutes.

Board member Dave Scannell supported Vargas’ decision, saying it was an “operational decision,” rather than a policy decision. He also said the issue underscores the need to have a student voice on the school board.

Lehoux said of greatest concern to him as a parent was having a specified date and time made public which could place students in harm’s way, and said Vargas had opened a Pandora’s Box of future protests on any number of issues.

Board member Arthur Beaudry read a legal opinion from the city solicitor, involving First Amendment rights, saying neither students nor staff have First Amendment rights to disrupt classes for political activity. 

Ward 11 School Committee member Katie Desrochers.

Board member Katie Desrochers spoke in support of the student-led protest from the perspective of being the mother of a high school junior.

“It is soul crushing every time there’s a school shooting, and we have to have this conversation, and your child expresses to you that they do not feel safe in their school,” Desrochers said.

She said she was thankful the district is supporting the need of students to express their feelings over what’s happening in their world.

Board member Sarah Ambrogi underscored Scannell’s point, that it is a disservice to students to not allow them to learn how to be citizens before they exit high school. She also said it might become a springboard for students to be able to create other times to gather and talk about differing viewpoints, or for school administrators to develop new civic-minded student groups or organizations.

Girard had two questions for Vargas – he asked if a child would be excused from school if that child, or that child’s parent, was uncomfortable with the protest. Vargas said he would consider such cases individually. Girard also asked about the opt-in/opt-out clause. Vargas explained that principals had a choice as to how to frame the option, but most were asking parents to let them know if they objected to their student’s participation.

Girard said he had issues with that – by asking parents to opt-out, the district was in effect sanctioning the demonstration, and he felt that created a greater liability than the event itself. He also said he resented that the board was not included in vetting the policy Vargas settled on.

He felt supporting a protest was counterintuitive to teaching students about civics. Allowing the protest was reinforcing self-expression over education.

Mayor Joyce Craig told Girard that there are teaching moments that happen outside the classroom. She defended Vargas’ quick decision-making under pressure, resulting in a structured plan for the March 14 event.

“The situation we have here today is something happening nationally, and our superintendent came forward, put some parameters around it, communicated to parents and to teachers… it’s been said very clearly this is not going to be disruptive,” Craig said.

Board member Mary Georges said if the protests are happening statewide – and nationwide – how would anyone think they could or should stop Manchester students who want to be part of a movement in which they are expressing a common generational fear over the dozens of school shootings that have happened over their lifetime.

A copy of the letter sent by Vargas is below:

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