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Student Activism and Gun Control

How school leaders can respond — by listening, helping to empower, and affirming students' rights
silhouettes of three young teen students holding signs

Schools are experiencing a tidal wave of student activism in response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida. Practically overnight, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students have become the new face of gun control and school safety — challenging lawmakers, tweeting out their views, and organizing marches, boycotts, and walkouts for stricter gun laws.

As young people across the country join in, it’s an inspiring moment for their educators — and a tricky one. Many feel powerless against state and federal laws, uncertain as to what their district leaders will endorse, unsure how to steer anger into action, or overwhelmed by a torrent of youthful voices.

We spoke with Gretchen Brion-Meisels, an expert in youth development who studies ways to build a positive school climate. Here, she shares perspectives on how teachers and administrators can acknowledge their students' concerns and empower their insightful leadership.

Why it’s important to take students’ views seriously:

From a social-emotional standpoint: In terms of building trust, relationships, and a positive school culture, it’s vital that everyone in a school building —teachers, staff, and students — feel like their voices are respected and heard. Part of ensuring this is making sure that there is a clear path for giving and receiving feedback. Students must feel safe and welcome in school, in order to be able to fully engage with their learning.

From a youth empowerment standpoint: We know from research on youth participatory action and youth organizing that when young people are given a voice in shaping the policies and practices in their school, there are benefits for both the young people and the school. The young people benefit from learning the skills and tools necessary to research and articulate their arguments, and from the sense of agency that comes with being an authentic partner in decision-making processes. Schools benefit because they better understand the ways in which their policies and practices are impacting their students, and because partnering with students builds trust and authentic collaboration.

"There’s a tendency to not take youth protests seriously — to say, 'Well, they just want to get out of school.' We need to interrupt that narrative, which really undercuts the wisdom and power that young people have, and their will to create change." — Gretchen Brion-Meisels

From a policy standpoint: Too often policies about schools are made without consulting or considering the young people and adults in schools. There are countless examples of teachers and students across history protesting the decisions of policymakers and/or demanding policy reforms that more fully acknowledge their humanity. Young people across the country have recently advocated against the criminalization of youth in schools, tracking, and punitive discipline policies; and in favor of gun control, LGBTQ rights, and a National Bill of Student Rights. In early February, youth across the country took part in a national Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Our Schools, where they demanded an end to zero tolerance and the implementation of restorative justice practices; the hiring of more black teachers; and a mandate for black history/ethnic studies in K-12 schools. The incredible young people who are leading the fight in Parkland are building on a deep history of youth activism in this country.

How schools can welcome student perspectives on violence prevention:

There are a number of ways that adults can successfully elicit opinions and ideas from young people to systemically influence the practices and policies in a school.

  • Ask young people directly what they need and want in order to feel safe and nurtured in school.
  • Have a group of youth researchers who regularly go out and investigate questions relevant to students at their school.
  • Integrate young people into school leadership teams that are looking at data about questions of safety and belonging at school.
  • Partner with existing community-based organizations that are doing this work, and who have young people already engaged in it. Too often the people who are doing violence prevention work are not welcomed or integrated into schools.

I also would argue that schools should always be thinking about the issues that are most relevant to their students, and how they can engage young people in studying and making recommendations about those issues.

Advice to educators whose students are taking a public stance on gun control:

My first piece of advice is that teachers should let their students take the lead: allow your students to tell you how they want to join this movement.

I think it’s worth noting that, in some cases, this might mean listening to some really valid frustrations about when the media and politicians choose to pay attention to the demands of youth. Most of the students whom we see at the front of the movement in Parkland are white, and many of them have had access to significant academic and economic resources. This is not to detract from what they’ve done, only to point out that there may be a relationship between the amount of support they’ve garnered and the communities they reflect. We don’t often see this kind of national uptake from the media when young folks in urban areas protest community violence, for example. These patterns are going to raise different feelings for different folks, depending on their lived experiences. So I hope that teachers will follow their students' lead. It may be that students want to participate in walkouts, and it may be that they want to react or act in other ways.

My second piece of advice is for teachers to stand in solidarity with their students. There’s a tendency to not take youth protests seriously — to say, “Well they just want to get out of school.” We need to interrupt that narrative, which really undercuts the wisdom and power that young people have and their will to create change.

Advice on Responding to Student Activism

  • Let your students take the lead; allow them to tell you how they would like to join this movement.
  • It’s not necessary to endorse any particular viewpoint in order to affirm students’ right to express their views. Stand in support of your students' right to expression; take their views seriously.
  • Ask students what they need from adults in order to feel safe and nurtured in school.
  • Honor the seriousness of students' views by challenging them to connect their current protests with the history of activism on gun control and with traditions of protest against community violence in urban centers. 

The third thing is to ask our students, “What do you need from us?” Maybe what they need is reassurance from high school and college administrators that they won’t be penalized for protesting. Maybe they need food for their meetings and rallies. Maybe they need advice about organizing strategies. Maybe they need us to call our representatives. For me, the goal is that adults stand with youth in vocal and visible ways. This support can be nonpartisan — it’s not necessary to endorse any particular view in order to affirm students’ right to express themselves or to validate the importance of their ideas.

My last piece of advice is that we honor our students by asking them hard questions. In this, I do not mean challenging or undercutting their work, but rather than we continue to push their work from a place of deep respect and love. Organizing is complicated. There are a lot of adults who have been working on collective action for years. And it’s on us, as those adults, to listen, but also to push. It’s on us to help students learn from the lessons of the past and think critically about their work. What are the different demands they could make around gun control, and what might the impact of those demands be? What would it mean for these students — in addition to what they’ve already articulated, which is incredible — to stand up and say, “And we stand in solidarity with young people in Chicago and LA and Boston and New York, for whom violence looks different, but feels very similar”? We need to believe in these young people, nurture them, and demonstrate that we will stand with them on this journey.

Advice to student activists:

I am deeply impressed by the amount of work that the young people in Parkland have achieved in such a short period of time. It is inspirational. I hesitate to give them advice — I’m not sure that I could do what they are currently doing — but if I were pushed to, I think I would encourage them to continue to partner. Partner with each other; partner with the adults in your community; partner with other movements against community and school violence; partner with movements against the structural violence of racism and misogyny and xenophobia. Be explicit about how your work stands in solidarity with these other movements, and how you are building on and from that work.

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