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Responding to Student Protest

As controversy swirls about pro athletes and sideline activism, how should schools react when students join in?

September 29, 2017
A photo of a football player kneeling next to his helmet

As schools gear up for weekend sports, some students are likely to echo the pros in sideline protest — whether by taking a knee during the national anthem, locking arms, or making another visible expression of their views.

With controversy swirling around President Trump’s critique of these actions, reactions from school officials, parents, and the wider community will undoubtedly vary, from total support to tolerance to disapproval and threats of discipline (about which, itself, there is robust debate). That’s to be expected, says educational ethicist Meira Levinson, who has written at length about the ethical dilemmas educators face when responding to controversy. Adults are weighing a spectrum of considerations and values — things like constitutional freedoms, political orientation, safety, and the emotional well being of students.

Here, Levinson elaborates on the issues at play for schools facing weekend #TakeAKnee protests. She also shares guidance and resources, below.

Understanding why students might protest:

People are making a decision to take a knee for a whole variety of reasons. It might be directly to protest racial injustice, racism, or police brutality. Or it may be actually none of those things; instead, athletes may be doing so in support of free speech rights, or in solidarity with those who are engaged in protest. And that solidarity may be political solidarity, or it may be the solidarity of friendship, of saying, “This matters to you, I recognize that you care deeply about this, and so I will be here to take a knee with you.”

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Listen attentively to students and find out what’s motiving them. Ask them why they are doing this and what they are trying to get across.

How to respond to protests, in the short term:

In the near term, the most important thing is to be informed. Listen attentively to students and find out what’s motiving them. Ask them why they are doing this and what they are trying to get across.

School and district leaders will inevitably face challenges and questions based on their own beliefs and the contexts in which they are working. It’s difficult to craft a response that respects the multiple perspectives that members of the school community — faculty and staff, students, parents, school partners — may have about this issue. But one helpful avenue is to show support for students’ civic engagement.

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. This is the heart of the First Amendment, in fact: I may vehemently disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The 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.

Discussing the controversial issues that drive protest:

The first time that people should be trying to talk about a controversial issue should not be when controversy has exploded within the school. That’s not when people are going to be at their best, for all sorts of reasons. Instead, it’s important to have these types of conversations happening as a regular part of the school experience. 

This is one reason that it’s really important that teachers are supported in having respectful but potentially quite vehement discussions in their own classrooms. It’s also why it’s important to have school newspapers or journalism of some kind — podcasts or YouTube channels — where dissenting voices are encouraged and where students, parents, and community members encounter different views about controversial issues. And this is also the reason that it’s important to have a real student council, with some policymaking capacity, where kids learn to disagree.

There are all sorts of places within curriculum and in extracurricular activities where respectful dissent should be part of the life of the school. These are pedagogical resources, resources of trust and mutual respect, and norms that people can draw on, explicitly or implicitly, when controversy hits.

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The first time that people should be trying to talk about a controversial issue should not be when controversy has exploded within the school. It’s important to have these types of conversations happening as a regular part of the school experience. 

If peers, teachers, or community members get upset, or if the protesting students are bullied:

It’s incredibly important for all the adults to help protect students from inappropriate responses, while also educating students about constructive ways to respond to appropriately expressed criticism.

While many people may celebrate students’ choices to protest racial injustice, others will disagree with students who take a knee, viewing the students’ choice as disrespectful. My guess is that a number of adults will also assume that students who take a knee are just copying the professional athletes — although in my experience, even very young children who take a civic or political stand are usually quite thoughtful about their reasons for action. Caring adults in students’ lives will have to help students parse the critiques they encounter and figure out whether and how to respond.

Unfortunately, often these days the best response is no response, given the risks of being trolled. If there are members of the community who really take offense and get upset, however, school leaders could encourage the students who engage to think about how can they explain or express themselves in other ways, in addition to a sideline protest. As the take-a-knee controversy has been getting more and more play, in some ways the message has been getting stronger, but in other ways it’s somewhat harder to parse and more obscure. School leaders could encourage students to express their views in a letter to the editor, a video, or another kind of statement.

At the same time, everybody needs to be very clear about the limits on civil discourse, and to protect kids when they are harassed, bullied, or trolled. No matter what anyone thinks about the principles that are upheld or violated when students take a knee, our obligation to protect children from bullying and ostracism is inviolable.

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Takeaways for Schools
  • Teachers and school leaders can support students' right to protest without taking a stand on those views themselves. Defending students' right to voice their views can help foster civic participation.
  • Encourage conversations about controversial issues throughout the year. Let students exercise their voices respectfully in school newspapers, podcasts, and YouTube channels, or in student council debates.
  • At the same time, it's vital that schools protect students who are harassed or bullied. Protecting children should be educators' number one priority.

To help educators explore the dynamics of student protest — and prepare to confront the inevitable complexities in their own communities — Levinson and a team of researchers with the Justice in Schools project created a case study about a large student walkout in the Portland (Oregon) Public Schools. The case will help educators explore the issues they may face, in their different contexts, and to assess possible responses. Levinson's team has posted a number of other case studies on Justice in Schools and published still more in Dilemmas of Educational Ethics, specifically to help educators, administrators, parents, and even students themselves have productive conversations about hard decisions. With co-author Jacob Fay, Levinson describes the power of using cases to approach complex and murky school scenarios in this blog post.

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Civics and History Diversity and Inclusion K-12