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Another Fire Drill tied to Student Walkout

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McKeel leader admits to mistake when Lakeland school held fire drill at time of national walkout

By Gary White 

Posted Mar 15, 2018 at 9:05 PMUpdated Mar 16, 2018 at 2:29 PM


LAKELAND — Leaders of McKeel Academy of Technology acknowledge they made mistakes in handling students’ plans to take part in Wednesday’s nationwide walkout on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland school shooting.

Alan Black, director of schools for the Lakeland charter network, emailed The Ledger on Thursday, saying he and the school’s administration “deeply regret the way we handled the national walkout (Wednesday).”

McKeel, a Lakeland charter school for grades seven through 12, received negative media attention and criticism from students and parents for the actions of administrators Wednesday. As several students told The Ledger, administrators said in advance that any students who left class at 10 a.m. — the designated time for a nationwide commemoration — would receive detention or stronger punishment.

Ultimately, the school held a fire drill at about 10 a.m., requiring all students to go outside. Some students who hadn’t planned to join the walkout said they felt forced to take part. The presence of a TV news helicopter above the school made some question whether school leaders had staged a media stunt.

Your photos: Polk students stage school walkouts to protest gun violence


“Please understand that there was no malice to deny those students the right to peacefully protest something they passionately supported, nor were any students punished for exercising their right to protest,” Black said by email. He added: “The decision to have a fire drill, which in hindsight was not judicious, was done with the intent to allow those students who wished to protest, a safe place surrounded by staff in the back of the school.”

Two students who contacted The Ledger on Thursday said school officials offered no apology or explanation to students.

“McKeel acted as if nothing happened,” Francesca Espinosa, an eighth-grader, said by email. “When my classmates and I asked teachers questions, they said they were not allowed to talk about the situation.”

Espinosa said she and some other students plan to stage a silent protest at school Friday morning “to stand up for the victims in Parkland and to show that McKeel lied and tried to silence us.”

Another student, Trinity Silva, said the protest will begin with the 8:45 a.m. bell to start the school day.

A third student, Kathleen Crosby, described her motivation.

“They want to silence our voices,” she said by email. “Instead of fighting back by raising our voices, we go silent. We don’t speak, at all. We go silent until they admit what they did, that it was wrong, and something changes.”

As reported Wednesday, the leader of the planned walkout said she met with Principal Joyce Powell and a dean Monday to inform them of what she and about 17 other pupils intended. She said the administrators refused to give their permission.

Several students said an administrator made a schoolwide announcement Tuesday warning that any student who joined the walkout would be punished.

Administrators organized a gathering Wednesday morning at 8:30, before the first bell and before all students had arrived on campus. At 10 a.m., about 15 students left class and found the school’s front doors locked. Soon after that, a fire alarm went off.

Before noon Wednesday, angry posts from students and parents began appearing on social media. Multiple students contacted The Ledger to express condemnation of the school’s leaders.

Powell sent an email to parents and students Wednesday afternoon, saying that “considerable misinformation” was circulating on social media. In the email, Powell wrote, “no students were encouraged to participate nor discouraged to participate (in the walkout).”

Multiple students refuted that, and at least one posted video that captured the school announcement warning students of potential discipline.

McKeel Academy, which receives public funding, is not overseen by the Polk County School District but has its own board of directors. Most other public high schools in Polk County allowed students to leave class at 10 a.m. Wednesday for observances scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each victim in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Although the gatherings were intended to honor the victims, some students made pleas for increased gun control or other government actions.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

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