Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information from Pilgrim Principal Jerry Habershaw confirming Supt. Phil Thornton’s statement that three hour Friday suspensions are the standard penalty for skipping class.
WARWICK, R.I. — The ACLU of RI has stated the alleged unfair punishment of 100 students who cut their final class Dec. 21 to protest Warwick Public Schools’ Special Education practices would be a First Amendment violation, and called for disclosure of Warwick Public Schools’ discipline practices.
On Friday, the students served a three-hour detention penalty students and teachers said is harsher than that received by their peers for similar offenses.
Zach Colon, Senior Class President at Toll Gate High, who organized the protest, said he and his classmates are aware the punishment is more severe than their peers have received for skipping class. A Pilgrim High teacher also noted the penalty is higher than what students cutting class typically receive on their first offense – a verbal reprimand.
Colon, who said he’s never been disciplined in school before, served the three hour detention with his fellows Friday.
Superintendent Phil Thornton has said the punishment is typical for skipping school.
Pilgrim High School Principal Jerry Habershaw, former principal for Veterans Memorial High School, a high school principal for 12 years, said the punishment for skipping class has been a three-hour Friday suspension for as long as he can remember, three hours from 2-5, he said.
“The ACLU of Rhode Island has no independent information about the typical practices of Warwick school officials in punishing students for cutting class. But if, as some pupils and teachers have alleged, the three-hour detention imposed on students for walking out of school to protest school district special education practices is greater than the punishment normally given students for cutting class, serious First Amendment concerns are presented. Students cannot be given harsher punishment for missing a class in order to engage in a political protest than would be given if they were caught hanging out across the street at a McDonald’s,” the ACLU of RI wrote in a release posted to their website, Twitter account and in a press release to media.
“If there is harsher punishment of these students because they engaged in a protest, that is, from our perspective, a clear First Amendment violation,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.
To address the allegations of unfair punishment, the ACLU of RI called for the school district’s practices regarding punishment for cutting class should be made public, “so that any concerns about unfair treatment can be rebutted.”
However, if these students have indeed been the recipients of harsher punishment, the discipline should be removed from their school records. Otherwise, the school district will be giving students a very wrong lesson about the meaning of the First Amendment,” The ACLU of RI’s statement concluded.