Beaufort County school superintendent Jeff Moss said students planning to walk out Wednesday as part of a national protest must leave school property or else potentially face loitering charges, according to three Bluffton High School students who attended the meeting with Moss last week.
But both the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and Bluffton Police Department said Tuesday they have no plans to ticket students for loitering.
“It’s almost like they’re (the district) trying to do everything they can to prevent the walkout,” Bluffton High senior Olivia Workman said. “He said we would have to cross the street — even more dangerous — if we want to walk out.”
District spokesman Jim Foster said “four adults in the room” at last week’s meeting — whom he identified as Moss, chief auxiliary services officer Gregory McCord, school principal Denise Garison, and the Bluffton High school resource officer (SRO) — denied that Moss mentioned any criminal charges or citations to students. Foster then clarified that the SRO was not in the room for the entire discussion, but said he did not hear talk about arrests from students or staff afterward.
“It was certainly never anyone’s intention to threaten students with arrest or any sort of law enforcement citation,” Foster said.
On Wednesday, students and school staff across the country are planning to walk out of school at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes — one for each life lost in the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting.
For many, it’s a way to peacefully protest a lack of gun laws and to make a point on the lack of school safety. For others, it’s a way to honor those who died on the one-month anniversary of the Valentine’s Day shooting.
But Beaufort County school district officials are discouraging students from walking out, citing safety concerns associated with students standing outside and being exposed to a potential gunman at a pre-determined time.
Instead, school administrators have rolled out what they consider to be safer alternatives. At Bluffton High, that includes a “brief” moment of silence in the hallways and a dedicated period of time for students to write messages on Post-It notes that can be displayed during lunchtime.
Bluffton High honors student Ami Hughey made her opinion of her school’s alternative well-known a few weeks ago by writing, “The district is trying to silence us” in permanent marker on the walls of all 12 school bathrooms. She faces criminal charges for the vandalism.
At the request of Bluffton High students, Moss met with a group last week that included Hughey, Workman and junior Priscilla Jean.
All three confirmed Moss said last week that students who walk out could be ticketed for remaining on school property.
“Now we have to cross a road to be able to stand with students,” Hughey said of Moss’ instruction to leave school property.
Added Jean: “Personally, I know the school system is trying to scare us into not walking out and trying to take away our voice and courage. ... They’re instilling fear to keep us from walking out and doing something we believe in.”
Foster said that’s certainly not the case.
“We admire these kids’ passion,” he said. “But safety is our No. 1 priority.”
S.C. law defines loitering as “remaining idle in essentially one location, spending time idly, loafing or walking around aimlessly in a public place.” The law also says, “Nothing in this section (of the law) shall be construed or enforced in such a manner as to restrict freedom of speech, religion or association.”
Bluffton Police Dept. Capt. Joe Babkiewicz said that if students choose to stay on school property after walking out of the building, officers would not be enforcing loitering charges.
“We’re there for the students’ safety,” he said, adding that “several” additional officers will be stationed at both Bluffton High and May River High School, though he declined to specify how many.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Col. Bill Neill said Beaufort County’s local loitering ordinance applies primarily to drug sales and narcotics.
“We take the position that it’s not in violation of the county ordinance,” Neill said of students standing on school property for the 17-minute walkout. “We don’t view this as a criminal matter.”
Parents can sign students out of school in the same way as any other school day. Students who cut class without parent permission could be disciplined, according to a district news release.
Ami’s mother, Mia Hughey, pointed out the irony of the school district’s stance: “Our superintendent refuses to to support the walkout and states it’s because of safety reasons, but then (he’s) making the children go (further) out in the road. ... So, safety is clearly not his concern.”
Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer
What Beaufort County’s other public high schools are planning in lieu of the walkout:
- Battery Creek High: During student lunch periods, there will be a schoolwide reading of the names of all 17 victims over the loudspeaker. Students will also able to write sympathy messages to victims’ families and lawmakers.
- Beaufort High: Students will gather in the gym at 10 a.m. to read personal messages about each victim. Seventeen chairs will sit empty to honor the victims.
- Hilton Head Island High: Students can wear T-shirts that display the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School logo. Students will read memorial statements they’ve written about each of the 17 victims at 10 a.m. over the loudspeaker. During lunch, students will be able to send messages to state and federal lawmakers.
- Islands Academy: Students can wear burgundy, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High’s school color, to a 17-minute event in the gym that includes a reading of victims’ names.
- May River High: Students can wear burgundy. At 10 a.m, students can stand in the hallways, linking arms, during a schoolwide “walk-in” over the school’s loudspeaker.
- Whale Branch Early College High: Students have proposed a 10 a.m. “walk-in” that will include writing notes to post to the school’s atrium walls.