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California high schoolers plan abortion protest in response to gun violence walkout

Abortion rights advocates and antiabortion supporters stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 after the court, in a 5-3 ruling in the case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, struck down a Texas abortion access law. (Photo: Getty Images)

As thousands of students participated in the March 14 national walkout against gun violence, a history teacher at Rocklin High School in California was busy posing a politically charged question to her class — one that would ultimately get her in trouble. “If students [wanted] to walk out of school for 17 minutes and … protest abortion, would that be allowed by our administration?” Julianne Benzel asked her class.

According to Benzel, the discussion that followed was fruitful — touching on where to draw the line when it comes to which topics can be protested. But when the news that she was questioning the politics of the walkout made it home to parents, the school reportedly decided to place Benzel on paid administrative leave.

In a statement to a local CBS affiliate KOVR, Rocklin Unified School District spokesperson said Benzel wasn’t being “penalized” based on her viewpoints, but that the “actions were being taken due to complaints from parents and students.” Although she’s now back in the classroom, and the event is behind her, Benzel’s words seem to have galvanized a new movement. Inspired by her words, one student is now planning a march around the very topic that she raised: abortion.

Brandon Gillespie, the main student from Rocklin High School behind the abortion march, told KOVR that it’s more than just a reaction to Benzel’s treatment. “[It’s] to honor all the lives of aborted babies pretty much,” Gillespie said. “All the millions of aborted babies every year.” Gillespie told the news station that he plans to use the hashtag #life. Although an exact day for the abortion protest has not been chosen, Gillespie is reportedly meeting with the principal on Friday to discuss plans for the march.

Whether other students will join remains to be seen, but Gillespie isn’t alone in his admiration for Benzel’s words. Nick Wade, another student, told KOVR that it was the discussion in Benzel’s class that convinced him not to participate in the walkout. “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,” said Wade. “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.”

As issues among teens go, a protest against legal abortions in America is radical. According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, 66 percent of kids ages 13-17 believe that abortion should be legal in some circumstances (and 21 percent of those believe it should be legal under “any circumstances”).

Not everyone agrees with Gillespie. One detractor, according to KOVR, is Naeirika Neev, a student who also edits the school paper. Neev stressed that everyone has “First Amendment rights,” but suggests that a protest surrounding abortion is missing the point. “Abortions aren’t really anything that has to do with school or students here,” she told KOVR.

In an opinion piece penned by Neev on her school’s website, the Flash, she elaborates on her views about the abortion protest. “The comparison of a protest against gun violence and that of an abortion is a logical fallacy — a false equivalence,” Neev writes. “When we, as the student body, have to step foot in school worried for our lives … it becomes an issue concerning the school.”

Neev goes on to discuss Benzel’s administrative leave, as well as the walkout on March 14 (which “two-thirds of the school participated in”), before ending with a call to action. “As the future of this nation, students across the country are making their voices heard,” she writes. “[We] will not back down until the lives of students holds more value than profits made off of weapons and outdated laws held together by lies and bribes.”

As for Gillespie and the march he’s planning, he told KOVR that he hopes the event will give students an opportunity to put the debate Benzel raised to the test. “I would like to see if there really is a double standard and what will come of that,” he said.

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