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Usable Knowledge

Student Protests: Questions and Answers

Information for teachers, principals, and district leaders about walkouts, free speech, and civic activism
Colorful illustration of students holding signs and protesting

With a student walkout called for March 14 and national protests on March 24 and April 20 (along with many local actions), educators are grappling with how to respond — both personally and professionally.

We've searched out guidance and credible resources to help answer eight common questions that educators have right now.

1: I’m a high school teacher. My students want to participate in a walkout next week to demand legislation that keeps schools safe from gun violence. I want to support them, but my principal/district does not seem open to it. What can I do?

One thing every educator can do: Support students’ civil rights, and align that support with your school's mission.

“School leaders can articulate that while they support students’ civil rights — including their right to engage in peaceful protest — students’ beliefs are their own. Schools can defend students’ rights to express themselves, without taking a stand on the content of that expression," says Meira Levinson, in a piece about how schools can respond to protest

"A school or district’s mission statement can also be a helpful guide as leaders consider how to respond to protest incidents. What are your core values — the set of guiding principles that you’re always talking about? These should be familiar to people and can provide an essential touchstone as you try to navigate among stakeholders with deeply divided opinions.”

Another key response: Create opportunities for students to express the strong emotions they are feeling. Carve out time and space for civil discourse and reflection, says Laura Tavares, writing in Greater Good Magazine. That should involve the creation of classroom norms to guide conversation and provide guardrails for discussing contentious topics. And when the conversation starts, let students lead.

For students who want to get active: Suggest that they explore Youth in Front, a new hub for advice and information for youth activists. The site has videos of experienced youth activists and adult allies answering common questions (for instance, Will I get in trouble?).

2: I’m a high school teacher, inspired by the student activism around the country. But many of my students seem not to care. What can I do to foster awareness and kick-start civic engagement?

Use this moment to discuss injustice, more broadly. Lead your students on an exploration: What matters to them? What stops them from being involved?

Young people who may feel disconnected from the Parkland shooting will have other, more-local issues that they care about. This moment could be a chance to empower them to take action — write letters to representatives, create a social media campaign — on the issues close to home.

Make them aware of the difference young people can make. You can start with the actions of students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Teaching Tolerance recommends, “Have your students read and discuss Emma González's moving speech from a rally in Fort Lauderdale. Have them read and react to Christine Yared's New York Times op-ed. Summarize the survivors' multifaceted activism and ask your students to evaluate the efficacy of such action.”

You can also use Be the Change, a lesson plan from Teaching Tolerance, to stir civic engagement. It guides students to investigate a community problem, research and propose a solution, and develop an action plan.

3: Will my students get in trouble if they walk out? Will I get in trouble if I support them?

“Public schools, as units of government, must follow the First Amendment’s guidelines. Students and employees do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate," according to the National School Boards Association. "But a public school is not a public street. Schools have a duty, and recognized authority, to limit expression to maintain order, to protect the safety of the school community, and to provide a nurturing environment for learning."

Students have the right to free speech at school, but schools can regulate that right if exercising it causes disruption or infringes on others’ rights.

A walkout is not protected speech, according to the ACLU and numerous other sources. Students without an excused absence are subject to punishment. But schools cannot punish students for walking out more harshly than they would punish students with other unexcused absences. Talk with school and district leaders and consult district policies to ensure that students will be given the chance to make up work, and that any consequences are proportional.

For teachers, "generally, the First Amendment protects your speech if you are speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern," according to the ACLU. "However, if you are speaking as part of the duties of your job, your speech will not necessarily have the same protection. What you say or communicate inside the classroom is considered speech on behalf of the school district and therefore is not entitled to First Amendment protection."

4: I’m a principal. The students in my district want to participate in walkouts and marches for stricter gun control laws. How should I respond?

Principals and superintendents face complex decisions: ensuring safety, ensuring the continuation of the educational program, and maintaining political neutrality, even as they also must support students’ right to expression. The National Association of Secondary School Principals offers a series of considerations for responding to student protests. These are aimed at keeping students in school, and they should be balanced with your own policies, sense of mission, and students' needs.

  • Keep students safe. This must always be your first priority.
  • Recommend alternatives. Can you instead host an open school forum about gun control? Can you accommodate the protest on school grounds?
  • Clarify consequences. Students should not be disciplined for protesting, but a walkout protest is a violation of school rules. Make the consequences clear, but also don’t make them any harsher than if a student walked out of school for any other reason. 
  • Stay neutral. Most districts prohibit staff protest during the school day. Educators can, however, provide opportunities for students to write letters to lawmakers or present their views to classmates.
  • Manage media attention. Frame the march as an opportunity for students to lead their own learning.
  • Attend to students who remain. Not all students will want to participate. Give them safe spaces to continue their learning and convey their views.

5: I’m a superintendent. The high school students in my district are not only planning on participating in walkouts; they are protesting in the halls and asking to use class time to strategize. I’m worried their activism is really disrupting things. What can I do?

Not surprisingly, superintendents are making very different decisions at the moment. Some have warned of suspensions, others are encouraging alternate methods of protest, and others are facilitating walkouts to keep things safe and organized.

In schools with activist momentum, school leaders should meet with student groups, listen to their concerns and their plans, and discuss strategies, how to mitigate potential consequences, and ways to ensure safety. Align your responses with your district's values and mission.

The School Superintendents Association supports the National Day of Action to Stop Gun Violence in Our Schools, on April 20, 2018, which urges teachers, families, students, and school administrators to engage in acts of advocacy and civic engagement in and around their schools. The organization has created a list of activities and things to keep in mind for April 20.

  • Read the School Superintendents Association set of resources and information.

6: I’m a high school teacher. Some of my students have been carrying “Protect the Second Amendment” signs around my school. How do I accommodate their views amid student activism on gun control?

Just like the young people advocating for stricter gun control laws, these students have the right to express their beliefs. Educators should support all students who want to participate in civic conversations and practice civil disobedience.

As a public school teacher, your freedom of speech in classroom discussions does have limits. In other words, it’s unwise to take sides on a political issue in front of your students. You can, however, ask students from both sides of the aisle to interrogate their own views through reasoned discourse. Have students read op-eds from multiple perspectives, review research on previous gun control measures, and discuss interpretations of the Second Amendment. Make sure they know the facts, and ask students to put together evidence-backed arguments around their beliefs.

It can also be constructive to ask them to move beyond opinion and propose policy solutions. School safety affects everyone, regardless of their perspectives on Second Amendment issues. On an issue where adults in positions of power are often stymied, young people’s ideas are needed.

7: I’m a principal at an urban high school. My students are black and Latino, and gun violence is prevalent in their neighborhoods. They are angry that the students in Florida are getting so much media attention, when they have been calling for gun reform for years. What can I do?

Validate your students’ perspective. It’s true that African American young people — even students in Florida — have organized protests against gun violence for years, with little (if any) political consequences or media attention. It’s also true that while your students have not experienced a mass shooting at their school, they may be suffering from the weight of collective trauma, constantly aware that they and their families are threatened by gun violence.

Encourage your students not to give up their own protests. Remind them, too, that the Parkland students are fighting against the public complacency that has sprung up around mass shootings — just as they are fighting complacency around community violence. Brainstorm ways to connect their needs and demands with those of other students. Students are already making some of these connections.

8: I’m an elementary school teacher. How can I use this moment to help young children begin to experience the power of civic engagement? 

Parents and teachers will make various decisions about whether, when, and how to begin to speak to children about traumatic events such as what happened in Parkland. (Read more about that here.) But no matter how young your students, there are many ways they can show their civic engagement.

Children Are Citizens, part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, is dedicated to the notion that children are not just future citizens; they are citizens now, with the right to express their opinions and participate in the civic and cultural worlds around them. On almost any issue, children have views, thoughts, and ideas that are both valid on their face and potentially refreshing as additions to an adult narrative, says Ben Mardell, a leader of the initiative, which has engaged young children in projects that explore — and seek to improve — cultural institutions, parks, and playgrounds.

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