Students at five Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools staged mass walkouts Friday, leaving their classrooms to march on behalf of immigrant rights, district officials said.
The actions ranged from a 30-minute, principal-approved march at Harding High to a chaotic protest that led to early dismissal at South Mecklenburg High. CMS emailed warnings to parents at South Meck, Olympic High, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Cochrane Collegiate Academy that students who “organized a walkout and left campus” will be disciplined according to the Code of Student Conduct.
Hundreds of students were involved at the five campuses, all of which have significant Hispanic enrollment. Friday’s walkouts followed Thursday’s national “Day Without Immigrants” event, in which immigrants were encouraged to stay home from work and school and avoid shopping.
CMS had approximately 16,000 more absences Thursday than the day before, according to attendance percentages.
On Friday afternoon the entire student body at South Mecklenburg High was dismissed early after some protesters there became unruly. Parents reported after-school activities were also canceled.
“It has gotten completely out of control,” said one South Mecklenburg student, who called the Observer from his classroom. “There’s a whole lot of students that are just marching around the school.”
CMS officials sent out an email to South Meck parents assuring them violence had not occurred at the school, and later said the district knew of no injuries connected with the protests. The statement said students were being released early “as a precautionary measure.”
South Meck Principal Maureen Furr said one student required medical treatment after a fight during the walkout and one student was taken by ambulance for treatment of an anxiety attack. She said the CMS communication office asked her not to discuss the situation with a reporter.
147,157 students in CMS
40,752 come from homes where English isn’t the first language
33,878 are Hispanic
Superintendent Ann Clark issued a statement Friday afternoon acknowledging the walkouts, which she said were in protest to “recent events involving immigrant communities.”
“We understand that many of our students are feeling lots of anxiety and fear,” Clark said. “We respect the right of our students to assemble peacefully and advocate for causes that are important to them. However, disorderly conduct that disrupts school operations is not acceptable and will be handled compassionately but firmly in accordance with the CMS Code of Student Conduct.
“We encourage parents to talk to their children about how they may be feeling and the importance of expressing themselves in appropriate and peaceful ways while at school.”
The CMS Code of Conduct says the penalty for “generally disruptive conduct” can include verbal warnings, calls to parents, in-school suspension, loss of privileges or out-of-school suspension, depending on severity of the offense. Anyone who moves from an assigned seat/area without permission can be found guilty of disruptive conduct, the code says.
Hours after CMS sent the statement to media and parents about disciplining students who organized walkouts and left campus, Chief Communication Officer Kathryn Block contacted the Observer to say students who protested peacefully will not face punishment. She said the district respects students’ right to express their concerns, but will penalize those who disrupted school, damaged property or put classmates at risk.
CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said the district had no reports of student arrests at the campuses that had protests.
She said students at Harding High also staged a 30-minute “organized gathering” Friday that was coordinated with the school’s principal, who “approved of their idea to come together as a group in solidarity.”
At Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, dozens of students left classes to march without permission, carrying the Mexican national flag and chanting. Police and administrators at the school watched, but did not interfere, and the event ended just after 10 a.m.
Charlotte’s Spanish Language newspaper Qué Pasa Mi Gente reported Friday that the school walkouts were staged by Hispanic students showing “solidarity with the rights of immigrants.”
On Thursday, more than 250 Charlotte businesses closed for the “Day Without Immigrants” and nearly 8,000 people marched in uptown. The uptown march was peaceful and staged in part to criticize the policies of President Donald Trump.
McCoy said Thursday’s attendance was 82 percent, compared with 93 percent the previous day. In a district with roughly 147,000 students, that difference means approximately 16,000 more students were absent on Thursday. McCoy didn’t say whether specific schools saw unusually high absences.
CMS issued a statement late Wednesday asking parents not to keep their children out of school for the national protest day. It repeated that sentiment Friday morning when the walkouts started, noting “any activity in connection with the walkout is a violation of student code of conduct.”