HANOVER COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Hanover County Public Schools has removed language from a proposed change to its student code of conduct regarding demonstrations that one parent called “unconstitutional” and “un-American” when it was first presented to the School Board.
In May, the county’s school administration proposed a change that said students would be prohibited from taking part in protests and walkouts. The original language in the proposal reads:
Protests and Walkouts
Students are entitled to a learning environment free of unnecessary disruption. Demonstrations, including protests and walkouts, are prohibited. Any physical, written, or verbal disturbance, communication, or activity within the school setting or during related activities, which may interfere with teaching or the orderly conduct of school activities is not allowed. Participation, including leaving class, the student’s assigned location or campus, during school hours will be subject to disciplinary action.”Proposed addition to Hanover schools’ student code of conduct’s “Definition of Terms” section in May.
The initial proposal would have added protests and walkouts to the “Definition of Terms” section at the end of the student code of conduct, but a district spokesperson asserted it only clarified the division’s position on demonstrations.
Timothy Zick, a College of William & Mary law professor specializing in freedom of speech, told 8News reporter Jakob Cordes in May that as it was written, the initial proposal could be construed “as a blanket ban on protests and demonstrations” and a potential legal effort challenging its constitutionality was not out of the question.
School personnel who presented it to Hanover’s School Board on May 10 said it would not violate students’ First Amendment rights.
But changes were ultimately made when the final proposal was posted online, including the removal of the sentence that “Demonstrations, including protests and walkouts, are prohibited” and that participation will be subject to disciplinary action. The new language of the proposal reads as follows:
Students are entitled to a learning environment free of unnecessary disruption. Any physical, written, or verbal disturbance, communication, or activity within the school setting or during related activities, which may interfere with teaching or the orderly conduct of school activities is not allowed and will be subject to the Code of Student Conduct. Additionally, leaving class, including the student’s assigned location or campus, during school hours without permission is prohibited and will be subject to the Code of Student Conduct.Proposed addition to Hanover schools’ student code of conduct’s “Definition of Terms” section in June.
Zick added the standard set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a watershed 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the free expression rights of students, puts the onus on school districts to ultimately clarify broad categories of speech such as demonstrations that establish “protected speech in the school context.”
Hanover students have taken part in protests this school year, including walkouts, over the School Board’s decision not to adopt a non-discrimination policy allowing students to use bathrooms and school facilities aligning with their gender identity.
The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation requiring Virginia school divisions to approve such policies and a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Virginia on behalf of a group of parents the month after the School Board voted against approving the policy.
Christopher Berg, an Atlee High School parent of two, spoke out against the possible change to the county’s student code of conduct during the School Board’s meeting on May 10. In an interview, Berg told 8News that his youngest child, a nonbinary ninth-grader named Em, was suspended earlier this year for three days after taking part in an unapproved walkout protesting the board’s policies on transgender students in the county.
After Berg claimed the change would be “unconstitutional” and called it “un-American,” Hanover County Public Schools’ discipline hearing review officer and the School Board’s attorney agreed that as it was proposed the potential change to the code would not violate students’ First Amendment rights.
The Hanover County School Board is set to vote on the edited version of the proposal, which the district wrote was changed “to clarify intent,” at its June 14 meeting. The district declined 8News’ request for an interview Friday, instead only sending a statement from spokesperson Chris Whitley.
“While I understand your interest, as you know, the School Board will consider this item during its upcoming monthly business meeting on June 14,” Whitley wrote in an email. “As a result, it is not our practice to elaborate on agenda items before our School Board meets and discusses the matter during the Board’s monthly business meeting. This is one of the primary purposes of these public meetings and related discussions.”
8News reporter Jakob Cordes contributed to this report.