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15 March 2018

Front Line Defenders Calls for Lifting of Punishments on US Student HRDs

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned at the sanctions imposed on numerous student HRDs in the United States on 14 March during the National Student Walkout against gun violence and in support of common sense gun legislation. The nationally-coordinated action responded to the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on 14 February in which 17 students were murdered.

While thousands of students were able to participate in a day of coordinated student protest on 14 March, walking out of classes for 17 minutes – one minute for each victim in the mass shooting – many other student organisers and protesters reported being threatened, intimidated and punished for their efforts to promote freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

While exact numbers are difficult to determine, hundreds of student organisers reported on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, as well as in interviews with local and national media outlets that they faced sanctions including suspension, having official notes made on their academic records and other administrative and academic measures. In other cases, students were given strict instructions on what would be accepted by school administrators – including what door of the school they could exit, how many minutes they could be out of class, who they could talk to – under threat of punishment.

Some cases reported in local and national media outlets include:

  • Bentonville West High School student, Ms. Summerlin Hutson was punished for passing out flyers announcing the National Student Walkout at her school. She was given an in-school suspension on 13 March after being stopped from distributing the flyers and an additional two-day suspension from school.
  • Nina Strudwick, a student at Howard High School in Bibb County, Georgia, who organised other students to participate in the walkout, was suspended for her role. Other students at the school who participated received a 20-minute after-school detention.
  • At Brandywine High School in Pennsylvania, 21 students joined the national action and found themselves suspended for one day after the district superintendent determined that any student joining the protest would be punished.
  • In Sayerville, New Jersey, the Sayreville Board of Education President announced in the days leading up to 14 March that any student participating would suffer a 2-day suspension, despite a clear district policy that calls only for Saturday detention in cases where students leave campus with out authorisation. The advance threat and escalated punishment appeared to be a clear effort to intimidate students.
  • Mt. Diablo High School staff locked the gates of the school in an attempt to prevent students from participating in the national day of action.

Front Line Defenders acknowledges that schools, administrators and staff have a duty to take into account safety considerations for student populations. Yet, the measures that have been taken to intimidate, harass and sanction students, particularly those who organised or led peaceful protests as part of a nationally-coordinated action, violates their rights to freedoms of speech, assembly and association.

As protest and social movements grow in the United States in response to numerous political and social crises, Front Line Defenders is increasingly concerned that human rights defenders are targeted as a means of suppressing these movements, in clear violation of constitutional rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.