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Theresa Manzella

Theresa Manzella

HAMILTON — A dust-up on social media over some Hamilton High School students' plan to participate in a national walkout spurred by student survivors of last month’s Parkland, Florida, school shooting has created a stir in the community.

On Tuesday, Hamilton High School Principal Dan Kimzey responded with a letter — addressed to parents and community members — that said the district’s ability to manage the event legally and fairly had been impeded by “wildfire of misinformation” on social media.

The discussion that caught the community’s eye started Sunday on the Ravalli County Republicans' Facebook page, a closed group. The page is administered by Ravalli County State Rep. Theresa Manzella.

Dusty Weber, a member of the Facebook group, posted a statement that said the school district planned to “use our kids as organized pawns for the gun control lobby…It is my understanding that kids are being told the walkout is against gun violence and to support victims of the recent school shooting. We’ve seen this all before. Of course, it’s all carefully masked by supporting administrators and teachers as ‘student led.’”

Weber’s post said that as soon as the students step out the door, “they will be counted as supporting gun control by the organized press partners who will be waiting outside. This is a bait and switch about to be performed on our minor children’s emotions and it’s disgusting.”

Some of the 260 comments that followed included concerns about students being led astray by their teachers.

In a post, Manzella said she was working to expose the MEA/MFT as being part of the radical left.

“It’s become painfully obvious the teachers union is working against our constitution and for socialism and communism,” Manzella wrote.

In response, Kimzey said a student approached him shortly after the Florida shooting saying she and some of her classmates planned to participate in the #Enough — National School Walkout set for March 14 from 10 a.m. to 10:17 a.m. The 17 minutes recognize each of the victims who died in the shooting at the Florida High School.

“The students who are planning and participating in this walkout believe strongly that school shootings are an epidemic that needs to immediately remedied in this country and intend to exercise their First Amendment rights, just as many opponents to this sort of protest have indicated equally strong beliefs in the gun rights protected by the Second Amendment,” Kimzey wrote. “This is an extremely complex issue, which can’t be distilled to the simplicity of First Amendment vs. Second Amendment rights.”

Taking those diverse beliefs into account, Kimzey said the district worked with its attorney and staff to ensure that students' constitutional rights were being upheld.

While some concerned individuals “had the courtesy” of calling the school to gather information, others have “chosen to fire off their false, and often inflammatory claims against the school in public and closed forums,” Kimzey wrote.

Allegations that the school district created or organized the protest were “patently false,” he wrote.

“What is truthful is that we individuals charged with maintaining the safe and orderly operation of the school have worked hard to ensure that these students who exercise their First Amendment rights are treated fairly and are able to do so safely, while we work hard to preserve the rights, safety and fair treatment of students who believe differently from these individuals.”

The students who chose to walk out of class will be subject to consequences outlined in the district’s student code of conduct, which could include detention or suspension.

Kimzey said the school will not suspend its normal operations and teachers will be required to continue teaching their classes to those who choose to remain behind.

“In short, school shootings have caused many students throughout the country to fear attending school and the Bitterroot Valley schools are no exception,” wrote Kimzey. “Many kids have expressed a feeling of helplessness and some of our students, and their fellows around the state, will most certainly walk out of school on March 14th in order to feel like there is something they can actually do to make a difference.”

While the issue is highly politicized and created a difficult and fluid situation to manage for the school district, Kimzey said the one thing that’s not at all ambiguous “is the fact that we take safety and security issues at our campus very seriously and that our job is to support all students from all walks of life.”

Manzella said while she felt better about the situation at the school after meeting the district’s school board chair Tuesday, there were still concerns over who was actually organizing the event and whether teachers would encourage student’s participation in some manner.

“People felt like a lot of kids might not have a clear understanding of what it was they were doing or if they were participating just because they want to get out of school,” she said. “The concern is that they will be used as pawns in a political statement.”

If the event was truly student-led, Manzella said she doesn’t think the Women’s March organization would be on their flyer.

Manzella said she suspects that organizers have either contacted or met with the students involved in putting together the protest.

As far as people posting misinformation on Facebook, “they have their right to their opinion, that’s for sure,” Manzella said. “We all have a First Amendment right to express ourselves. That’s what you’re seeing happen.”

It was the reason Manzella said she called the school chairman Tuesday morning “to get the real deal.”

“It’s just part of the world in which we live in,” she said. “People are going to jump to conclusions and it certainly wasn’t just Ravalli County Republicans who did so. I have seen it and heard it in multiple places. I certainly hope he wasn’t talking about our group in particular, but who knows. I can’t answer that question.”

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