Schools in St. Louis are taking different approaches to Wednesday's student walkouts

At least 15 public schools in the St. Louis area will be joining in Wednesday’s national school walkout, organized to demand gun control legislation.

• Live updates: Students take part in national walkouts after Florida shooting

But students and school leaders across the region have different opinions of what the walkouts should be about.

Many school administrators and students are shying away from calling for gun control, instead calling for general “school safety” or simply to honor the 17 victims killed in last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which sparked a call for Wednesday’s walkouts.

“We’re kind of trying to keep it as apolitical as possible and really kind of framing this as a student safety discussion in support for the victims of Parkland, as opposed to saying this is about gun control,” said Susan Downing, spokeswoman for the Ladue School District. “Whatever the solutions are is something we all feel different about, so … it’s not our place to take a position necessarily, but to facilitate the conversation with students.”

Some school leaders steered students away from walking out, instead opting for in-class or in-school assemblies or activities such as holding moments of silence. Few, if any schools will hold off-campus walkouts or marches. That’s partly for safety reasons and partly because 17 minutes doesn’t allow much time for students to walk off campus.

“A walkout is not a narrative that we are embracing. We’re advocating for safety. We want our students to know how to appropriately protest, but we also have to maintain a safe and orderly environment,” said Hazelwood Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart. “I just think the walkout connotation carries with it some things that make it negative in that it’s not safe and orderly.”

When school leaders know a walkout is coming, they must not only consider student safety, but also students’ rights to free expression and the possibility that some students could use the walkout to play hooky. Unlike past school walkouts that have happened more spontaneously, Wednesday’s walkouts for most schools have been highly organized, up to weeks ahead of time, by students in collaboration with administrators.

Some schools, including Triad High School, Highland High School and Maplewood-Richmond Heights schools are requiring signed permission slips so that staff know ahead of time how large the walkouts will be and can ensure that enough staff remain inside to supervise students who choose not to walk out. The permission slips also serve as a vehicle for students to have meaningful discussion about the issues surrounding the walkout, school leaders of Triad High and Highland High wrote in similar letters.

Students at a few schools will be doing more than just walking out. For example, Clayton High School students will be registering voters and writing letters to legislators in the cafeteria during lunch in addition to holding a walkout, said Mitali Sharma, a Clayton High School senior who helped organize a student press conference last month against gun violence.

“We didn’t want to end it with just the statement. We actually wanted to do something more tangible that will actually contact the representatives and politicians directly,” Mitali said.

Mitali said she thinks it’s important for Wednesday to be specifically about calling for gun control, rather than just school safety or remembering the Parkland shooting victims.

“Just talking about drills and things like that, or I think just standing up for the issue of school safety is a very broad one. But it’s really gun violence in particular that is affecting schools,” she said. “If you’re really trying to do something for school safety, then you should be trying to attack the problem.”

While unexcused absences, detentions, parent conferences or suspensions are among the possible consequences for walking out at various schools, administrators at other schools said they do not plan to discipline students for walking out on Wednesday. Those include Ladue, St. Louis Public Schools and Parkway.

Hazelwood Superintendent Collins-Hart said in a letter that any students who take part in an unauthorized walk out will be disciplined according to district guidelines.

Webster Groves High School students who walk out will have to prove that they did it for a reason. Those students will receive unexcused absences unless they provide the school a written or verbal explanation for why they walked out and what they learned from the experience, wrote Superintendent John Simpson in a letter to families. Webster Groves staff will give middle and high school students a chance to donate to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School GoFundMe account, wear the high school’s colors in support and pledge to keep their schools safe.