Open Letter in defense of “March for our Lives” student walkouts

Dear Pennsylvania school administrators, solicitors, board members, and educators,

As you are already aware, students nationwide have decided to respond to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, by engaging in organized demonstrations. Their hope is to promote awareness of gun violence, which has devastated schools and communities across the country, and spark meaningful reform to address this issue. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania ask that you support them in this endeavor, and refrain from disciplining any students who engage in a peaceful walkout.

Students striving to change their communities and their country through non-violent means should be held up as models of civic engagement, regardless of the issue or the politics involved. School administrators and educators can either punish these civically minded students for violating school rules or seize this opportunity to nurture their efforts to participate in civic life and to effect positive change around them.

If you choose to punish them, you should be aware that, when engaging in political speech, students enjoy constitutional protections both in and out of school.

Outside of school, as you know, students enjoy the same rights to protest as others. During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions. Practically, this means:

  • Students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it substantially and materially disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or profane.
  • Students cannot be disciplined for wearing clothes or accessories that express political or issue-oriented viewpoints just because some may disagree with that view.

As students plan walkouts to press for changes in policy, please bear firmly in mind:

  • It is unconstitutional to discipline students more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
  • The ACLU of Pennsylvania may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishmentthan a classmate would for skipping class for some other reason.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we are continually impressed and inspired by the commonwealth’s engaged young people who stand up for their own rights and the rights of others. Whether or not you agree with their cause, we hope you will join us in encouraging students to use their growing voices to participate in our democracy, rather than becoming another hurdle they have to overcome in their fight to be heard.

Sincerely,

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director

Witold Walczak
Legal Director

Meet Akudo Ejelonu — Frankel-Adair Scholar 2017–18

Akudo Ejelonu at the ACLU of Pennsylvania offices on March 8, 2018 (credit: Ben Bowens)

How did you hear about the Frankel-Adair Scholarship?

Through the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

What, if any, was your connection to the ACLU prior to applying for the scholarship?

I have always been familiar with the mission and work of ACLU since high school.

What were the most important events or influences that brought you to where you are today?

My family migrating to the United States from Nigeria seeking better opportunities, employment, and access to education. I grew up in inner-city Boston and had to fight against xenophobia, racial disparity, bullying, and socioeconomic inequality and even discrimination from other people of color. My parents worked two full time jobs and being the second born out of seven children, I was responsible for caring for my younger siblings and maintaining the household. After I came home from school, I would assist my siblings with their homework, make dinner and get them ready for school for the next day. I had to grow up really fast but know that I was destined to do extraordinary things with my life (big or small). These experiences were just part of the chapter in my life and not the conclusion.

What do you see as the critical issues facing the LGBT community at this time?

Everything! But if I had to pick one, I would say that we need to shed more light on the treatment and lack of support for “undocumented” LGBT people, especially people of color. It is imperative that undocumented individuals be given the chance to step out of the shadows and away from the fears of deportation and continue the work they do every day in this nation to support themselves and their family. How they are treated by employers, family, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors matter. How are they treated by the legal system, healthcare system, law enforcement, social services and educational institutions all matters. Their physical, emotional and spiritual safety matter. Any comprehensive, successful immigration policy needs to expand opportunity for all rather than selectively applying our nation’s values.

Akudo and ACLUPA Executive Director, Reggie Shuford. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Do you envision your own professional career having an impact on concerns of the LGBT community?

Yes, I do. I am still building my professional aspirations and hope that wherever life takes me, it will allow me to have a direct and/or indirect impact on the community. I feel indebted to Bayard Rustin and other people who history tried to erase because of homophobia. I want the work that I do to matter and to help communities grow and prosper.

What other social issues motivate you?

Global health, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), homelessness, poverty, environmentally induced migration of IDPs (internally displaced persons), and refugee rights.

What effect do you think being a recipient of the Frankel-Adair Scholarship will have on you?

This is the first time I am being recognized within the community-at-large. It is a different feeling. It bears a level of responsibility and gratitude. I stand on the shoulders of giants before me and hope that I can bear that same weight for those in my present and future. This is more than just an award, it is an affirmation, rite of passage and homecoming.

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The Frankel-Adair scholarship provides $1,500 in support of post-secondary education to an LGBT student residing in the Greater Philadelphia area.  Learn more about the Frankel-Adair Scholarship here!