On Wednesday, nearly an estimated one million students nationwide protested inaction by state and federal government on gun reform.
They marched on streets and freeways; they rallied in front of buildings such as the Trump International Hotel; if they didn’t leave school grounds, they knelt outside of the classroom to show solidarity for the noble cause of wanting people in power to make it difficult for evil men to get access to weaponry that can quickly led to their slaughter, while getting the education they are told is invaluable.
Many of these school children are also told that they ought to care about something larger than themselves. That they need to look away from their phones and into the world around them. Americans collectively like to tell themselves that they love the First Amendment, that they revere citizens who are politically engaged, and that they champion young people who want to take a stand.
Yet, a number of these students are being schooled about how such proclamations come with conditions. That, or they have been flat out lied to. That many would much rather prefer they fall in line rather than stir trouble.
At schools like Council Rock High School North in Pennsylvania, district’s superintendent Robert Fraser initially warned students that they would be disciplined for walking out of class. Eventually, he backed away, leaving the more than 400 students that reportedly left the building to protest without consequence. Other administrators were either supportive or agnostic, but some students weren’t as lucky and were left to deal with the repercussions of their actions.
As Slate’s Jaime Dunaway has noted, the Supreme Court’s landmark Tinker v. Des Moines District decision in 1969 established that students have a First Amendment right to protest. “However, students do not have the right to cut class or disrupt class, which means they could be punished for participating in the walkout if it is not approved by school administrators,” Dunaway writes. Those school administrators with an ax to grind wasted no time making their positions clear.
Many schools, specifically those in my home state of Texas, made announcements that some students would be disciplined — some warnings as severe as a three-day suspension. In a letter to parents, Curtis Rhodes — the Needville Independent School District’s superintendent — cautioned that he would “not allow a student demonstration during school hours for any type of protest or awareness.”
“Should students choose to do so, they will be suspended from school for three days and face all the consequences that come along with an out of school suspension,” Rhodes added.
At other Pennsylvania-based schools, such as Allentown’s Pennridge High School, Pennridge Superintendent Jacqueline Rattingan announced the 225 students who walked out of school instead of attending an in-house assembly honoring the 17 murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida would receive detention. Likewise, New Jersey’s Sayreville Board of Education president Kevin Ciak told local media that he, too, would be making sure students would be given detention. To Ciak, the students that walked out were considered to be engaging in “willful disobedience” and a “failure to follow administrative direction.”
Although it would more ideal if administrations would be less reactive to students wanting to advocate for school safety in the form of gun control, at the same time, students should have known that engaging in civil disobedience of any kind runs the risk of retaliation. Protesting is about making people uncomfortable, and when speaking truth to power, there is no amount of hand holding that can totally prevent anyone walking out of class from receiving punishment for their actions.
Still, there’s something frustrating all the same with any school administrator who wanted to punish kids for being rightfully afraid over the reality that as it stands now, it’s not implausible to think they could one day die in their classrooms at the hands of some deranged (presumably white male — at least as patterns go) person from killing them with an AR-15. They have every right to be afraid. All of us do. We can’t go to the movies; to church; to a concert; anywhere. Why wouldn’t any sensible person mobilize to protest the organization and hack politicians largely responsible?
No matter what actions a few petty, small school administrators have taken against certain students, it’s evident that the movement that has been spurred will not be stopped. They will keep protesting on and off campus. I wish them all well. However, I do hope some of them will see the actions of these school administrators and remember this very important lesson: they can be targeted and voted out of office.