School Talk

High School Teacher Placed on Leave for Comments About Student Walk-Outs

There is a teacher under fire in California and knowing what I know of her alleged “transgression”, I wish my own kids could be in her class. Julianne Benzel of Rocklin High School did what every teacher should be doing—especially in Social Studies—during a week of nationwide student protest.

She pushed the thinking of her students and encouraged them to confront the complexities of political speech when it occurs during the school day and involves students walking out of school. And she has been placed on administrative leave because of it.

If the reports are true, Benzel in no way discouraged her students from walking out. She simply asked the same question that I and and others asked in the lead up to the national walk out this past Wednesday.

Are schools prepared to allow students to walk out of school to protest another, perhaps less popular, viewpoint? In looking for a comparably emotional and divisive issue to cite as an example, she chose abortion.

If the local and national reporting is correct, the human resources department sent her a letter telling her not to come to work because of a discussion she held with students about the danger of double standards in student protest.

When asked by local news outlets what she may have said to upset the administration, she responded this way:

“If you’re going to allow students to walk up and get out of class without penalty then you have to allow any group of students that wants to protest. And so I just kind of used the example, which I know it’s really controversial, but I know it was the best example I thought of at the time — a group of students nationwide, or even locally, decided ‘I want to walk out of school for 17 minutes’ and go in the quad area and protest abortion, would that be allowed by our administration?”

Benzel says she received no backlash during or after class from her students, but administrators say they received “several complaints from parents and students involving the teacher’s communications regarding today’s student-led civic engagement activities.”

Benzel says that she was “aghast” when she received the letter from Human Resources telling her not to come to work and as a mom and former teacher who lives three thousand miles away from Rocklin, California, I too am aghast. It is unfathomable to me that anyone would think that what Benzel—a social studies teacher—discussed with her students is inappropriate let alone offensive or grounds for punitive action from the district. 

She is having real time conversations and debates with her students about free speech and protest and how those very same rights must be granted to everyone—especially in the context of a school sanctioned protest— regardless of the views they may hold. 

We need more teachers like Mrs. Benzel if our children are to have any chance at deftfully navigating a future in which the exchange of ideas and freedom of speech remain bedrocks of this nation.

Benzel has retained legal counsel.




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