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.