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Cuomo: Walkout discipline violates student free-speech rights

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo joins students at

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo joins students at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan during the national school walkout on Wednesday. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Some Long Island school districts have waived discipline they imposed on students and staff who walked out of school Wednesday as part of the national protest and memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Sources in the Connetquot district confirmed that they have dropped disciplinary actions against students and staff members there. Lindenhurst district officials have absolved students of extra detention, according to a letter from the high school principal that cited requests made Thursday by the state Education Department and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to support students’ rights.

“It was never the intention of anyone in the district to stifle students’ constitutional rights, but rather to organize activities that were mutually agreed upon and respectful of our students’ desires to be heard, while simultaneously maintaining the safety and security of those students,” read the letter from Clinton Grant, principal of Lindenhurst High School.

The actions came after Cuomo said Thursday districts that disciplined students for demonstrating should rescind the punishments and cease any disciplinary actions. While many Long Island districts held school-sanctioned tributes and memorials to the 17 people shot dead a month ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, some had warned students of repercussions for walking out.

“Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional,” Cuomo said in his letter to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “These actions send a terrible message to New York’s children and are against constitution free-speech protections.”

Two other districts that had disciplined students, Rocky Point and Massapequa, did not comment on the governor’s request, saying they do not comment on student discipline.

Massapequa school officials had said they designed a “Day of Peace” initiative for Wednesday to recognize and honor the 17 shooting victims.

“Students were reminded about the Massapequa School District’s Code of Conduct, and any deviation from the outlined procedures would be considered a violation. Less than two dozen students chose their own form of remembrance, which was not in line with the district’s planned event,” read a statement the school issued Wednesday.

Isabella Italiano, 16, a Massapequa junior, said the students modeled their tribute based on plans from Parkland students and had anticipated some disciplinary action, but not in-school suspension.

“They pegged us as insubordinate because we went against them and demonstrated in the front of the school, as opposed to the back,” she said.

Rocky Point parent George Astarita, whose two daughters walked out, said both children had been served with in-school suspensions. He questioned the decision by Superintendent Michael Ring.

“It’s ridiculous that Michael Ring is standing his ground on this,” Astarita said. “The kids’ principals spoke to my daughters and said it was out of their hands.”

Ring declined to comment.

Demonstrations to remember the victims of the Feb. 14 massacre in Florida spanned the Island.

Wednesday’s national walkout, which lasted 17 minutes, was organized in the days after the deadly rampage allegedly carried out by former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, 19, who police said used a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle. Cruz has been indicted on 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 of attempted murder.

In a response to the governor Thursday, Elia said she, too, supports students and will investigate any reports of student safety having been compromised.

“I have discussed with school district superintendents, board members, teachers and others the importance of learning from this tragedy by engaging our students in an important civics lesson on the power of their own voices,” Elia wrote.

One senior at Connetquot High School said she and others had received three days of in-school suspension for standing outside the front of the school.

Psychology teacher Barbara Martorelli, who joined the students outside, said Thursday punishments have been dropped, but she and the students were willing to face some consequences for their actions.

“The students were not doing what they did to make Connetquot High School look bad,” Martorelli said. “They did this because they truly believed they needed to be a voice for those who no longer have one.”

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