Utica students suspended for holding signs in protest

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A nationwide school walkout on March 14th to remember the victims of the Parkland massacre.

One month earlier students at Utica Academy for International Studies marched as well - but for some who carried signs, their activism ended in suspension.

"We need to stand up for our rights and we deserve to feel safe," said student Meghan Biernat.

Juniors Meghan Beirnat and Cameron Pugh called for gun reform and calling our senators - but that didn't sit well with the school. The administration told students beforehand - not to get political.

"It feels like sanitization of a protest to me," Pugh said. "Like to not make something political out of such a political issue, just did not make sense."

Several students did what they felt was right and they ended up suspended - a clear violation of their First Amendment rights according to the ACLU.

"The school had pre-approved chants and messages," said Mike Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU Michigan. "Most importantly the school prohibited students from displaying political messages on signs during a demonstration. Hard to imagine more unconstitutional school rule."

So the ACLU got involved and the principal met with the students and their parents, and removed the suspensions from their records, But the ACLU wants the school to apologize to the students and allow them to carry signs calling for action.

"The fact that they were suspended sent a terrible, chilling message to students about free expression in the future," said Steinberg. "We think it is important that they apologize to let students (know) they are free to express themselves."

The principal sent a statement saying the school supports students and free speech as well as a safe learning environment - no mention of an apology or easing restrictions on signs.

The students have another walkout planned for Friday which is the anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine.

Pugh and Beirnat plan to be there and want to send a message to their peers.

"We just want kids to not be afraid to stand up for those rights - that's really our end goal here," Pugh said.

"It's important for students going forward that when they were suspended, and when they are faced with disciplinary action, that they don't let that scare them from their views and their point of view (and) speaking their message and going forward," Beirnat said.

After all - for these activists - it's not just about their rights - it's about their safety.

"We at the ACLU just want to make it clear to these students and students across the state that they have a right to speak up," said Steinberg.

Full school statement by Shaun Greene-Beebe, principal: 

"UAIS is committed to protecting and upholding the free speech rights of all its students. We also take seriously our responsibilities and obligations to provide a safe learning environment for all students while they are under our care. This obligation includes reasonable time, place and manner guidelines in furtherance of that goal."