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County GOP chief: Parents' rights may have been violated in 2018 student walkout

A civil rights lawsuit filed last week on behalf of Portland parents alleges taxpayer resources were used to support anti-gun protests in 2018.

Portland Public Schools denies the claims.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students march and protest gun violence in downtown Portland in April 2018. A lawsuit filed against the Portland Public Schools district alleges PPS staff and board members used taxpayer resources to help organize the student protest.The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, March 13, by James Buchal, stems from activity and communications among Portland Public Schools staff to address a nationally planned student walkout in the wake of a deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Buchal is an attorney and also serves as chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party. He's a noted gun rights advocate who previously ran for Congress in 2014.

Students across the nation planned the "Enough! National School Walkout" on March 14, 2018, as a means to acknowledge victims of the attack and to demand action from Congress on gun laws and school safety.

The event was planned on the one-month anniversary of the mass school shooting in Florida that left 17 students dead on Feb. 14, 2018.

In the local lawsuit, plaintiffs Lucas Burwell and Michelle Yarbrough have two kids in the PPS district. They joined Katherin Kirkpatrick and Christopher Johnson, who have one child in the district.

Through their attorney, the couples allege the Portland school district's coordinated response to planned protests in March and April last year amounted to official policy, "in favor of gun control, and attacking political opponents of gun control."

Plaintiffs say district staff and elected officials made a concerted effort to advocate for new gun legislation and sought ways to support the walkout.

The complaint points to emails and memos obtained from PPS, as well as poster-making events hosted by Portland schools in the lead-up to the walkout.

Two days after the Florida school shooting, PPS board director Amy Kohnstamm wrote to PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, saying she reached out to the Council of the Great City Schools — a national coalition of urban school districts — to "see if there are others who feel we should be using our powerful collective voice at this moment on gun control."

"We should be a powerful voice in lobbying for measures that will help us keep (children) safe," Kohnstamm wrote in a message to Guerrero, adding, "... I am talking about lobbying action."

Kohnstamm called for a nationwide resolution from the coalition addressing gun violence, saying, "... Thoughts and prayers aren't cutting it. Let me know what you think."

The following month, the PPS board adopted its own resolution calling for universal background checks on firearms purchases and a ban on all semiautomatic weapons.

Before the walkout, PPS schools and leadership responded to a swarm of parent and teacher questions with instructions and guidance on how to approach the planned student activities.

"While our current policies do not allow us to sponsor or participate in a walkout, we can however offer an affirmative message to our students," a March 5, 2018, memo from PPS Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis to PPS principals stated. "We like them, have strong emotions and thoughts about the fact that one more mass shooting has occurred in a school. We would like to provide guidance on how we, as a district, can strive to respect and support the voices and actions of our students in response to recent events, while also ensuring their safety."

The same memo instructed teachers to allow students to talk about the events in Parkland, Florida, while allowing them to observe 17 minutes of silence, or have a "developmentally appropriate activity planned."

A similar memo was sent to parents and guardians of students on March 6.

"Our role ... is (to) support you while expressing your civil rights ..." a message read to students states.

PPS officials say the district simply fulfilled its duty to respond to planned events and ensure student safety.

The lawsuit alleges the parents' First and 14th Amendment rights may have been violated, and saying Second Amendment rights advocates are routinely drowned out within PPS.

On behalf of the plaintiffs, Buchal suggests the deadly shooting in Parkland wasn't the result of lax gun laws, but rather, failed policies that led officials to ignore clear warning signs and a pattern of violent behavior from the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who reportedly had police called to his home 45 times while he was in middle and high schools.

PPS issued a statement in response to the federal lawsuit, calling the claims "baseless."

"... It is disappointing that this lawsuit will take time and resources away from providing support to our students," the message states. "What we can say is that we have provided more than 16,000 emails and other documents to Mr. Buchal. What those documents demonstrate is the intentional and thoughtful planning that went into ensuring student safety and continued learning while also providing opportunities for students to express their views on a critical social issue and respecting their First Amendment rights."

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