Rocklin, CA— California high school history teacher Julianne Benzel is on paid suspension after engaging her students in a discussion where she shared her perspective on the politics of organized protests in anticipation of the National School Walkout, which took place on the morning of March 14.
“We had a dialogue in class about it in Thursday and Friday. And today I received the call. So I am aghast,” Benzel told CBS Sacramento.
Benzel said that she questioned her students as to the appropriateness of schools sanctioning a protest against gun violence and whether the school administration was willing to allow protests for other causes, but she noted that she never discouraged her pupils from taking part in the walkout.
“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,” Benzel said.
“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,” Benzel told CBS Sacramento. “[If] 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?”
According to Benzel, her students understood the purpose of her discussion, but on Wednesday, she received notification that she was being placed on leave. While students were walking out of class, Benzel was informed she was being placed on paid administrative leave.
“I didn’t get any backlash from my students. All my students totally understood that there could not be a double standard,” she said.
School officials didn’t elaborate on the specific nature of the issue, but released a statement reading in part:
A Rocklin High School teacher has been placed on paid administrative leave due to several complaints from parents and students involving the teacher’s communications regarding today’s student-led civic engagement activities.
Benzel said that she hopes the national student walkout will facilitate broader discussion not focused entirely on second amendment gun rights, but also on free speech.
Student Nick Wade, who didn’t walk out, told CBS13 that he believes the politics behind the protest played a large role – and that protests related to a more “conservative” cause would likely be denied by school officials.
“I feel like if we were to go to school and say something like I want to walk out maybe for abortion rights, then you know they probably wouldn’t let us because that’s more of a conservative push. But someone wants to say let’s walk out for gun control then the school’s going to go with it because it’s more of a popular view,” said Wade.
Benzel told the news station that she acquired legal counsel and plans to meet with the school administration on Thursday.