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Empowering Students Through Turbulent Times

Gun Control Walkout.jpegGuest post by Greg Fredricks

March 14 was a day of national protest at thousands of schools across the United States in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a month prior. It was not a spontaneous movement, but rather a coordinated response to feelings that students were experiencing in the aftermath of a mass shooting which left many of them with a palpable sense of fear and vulnerability. It also helped to create and foster a new political awareness for many of the post-millennials.

These are truly interesting times that we live, lead, and teach in. Students face pressures from the current political, social, and economic climate completely unique from previous generations. The turmoil is augmented by the power of social media and technology which links our young people in ways that could not be imagined even a generation ago. The events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14 resounded with students across the country in a deep and impactful way. It made a generation that already feels especially susceptible to the actions of others organize on a scale and scope that is reminiscent of many of the civil rights movements dating back decades.

It is worth noting that this movement of student activism in response to gun violence is not new. Students from urban areas and neighborhoods besieged by gun violence have been seeking real and meaningful gun legislation changes for decades. Due to implicit biases in the media, many of their stories have gone unheard. One potentially positive immediate result of this newfound attention may be that some of these more localized, grassroots, neighborhood-based anti-violence campaigns will gain traction and media attention. It is important to recognize that while many of these young people have aligned themselves with the current movements, their narrative and advocacy predate much of the outcry against school violence that dates back to post-Columbine in 1999.

As invigorating and empowering as the movement towards walkouts in remembrance of those slain at Stoneman Douglas was, there were very real and substantial logistical and legal issues raised by the potential for student demonstrations. The challenges presented by the walkout on March 14 were numerous for schools. School leaders face various legal, ethical, and pedagogical issues and questions raised by the student protests.

Although Tinker v. Des Moines is the court case which has received the most attention in social media and the media over the weeks leading up to March 14 there were many examples of case law which had to be reviewed. The very fine line between allowing student expression versus what could be seen as an endorsement of a political stance by a school district had to be examined. This is compounded by the question of what exactly is the role of our schools in the process of developing citizenship and civics among their student populations.

School districts also faced the challenge of how to honor or recognize the date across broad spectrums of age groups and grades. Leaders were faced with determining how might it be appropriate to draw attention to the event in an elementary school versus a middle school versus a high school. Even the age groups and various levels of maturity within a building presented challenges. Whether it is a moment of silence, a teach-in, a walkout, etc., each scenario had to be tailored to the community and population that the individual school building serves.

Ultimately, it fell to individual districts to determine the best course of action on the 14. I am proud that my district brought different and diverse groups to the table to create a day that would honor the desires of the students while maintaining safety and structure. Through multiple meetings, discussions, and with the advice of counsel and professional organizations, our district moved forward with a comprehensive plan to best meet the needs of our students and communities.

Elementary schools held a moment of silence to honor the moment. At the middle school level, teach-ins were held in classrooms to give students spaces to express their thoughts, concerns, suggestions, and advocate for changes that they wished to see. The goal of this was to have the teacher act as a facilitator and allow students to drive the conversation.

At the high school, students were given a space in terms of time and location to participate in the walkout. It culminated with students self-selecting to participate and approximately one thousand students spending seventeen minutes of reflection outside, while the school day continued on with minimal interruption for the approximately two thousand students who did not participate. This honored the feelings and desires of all involved. It also clearly demonstrated to our students that there is real and substantial support for them to pursue their particular passions and beliefs. This was achieved by making students part of the decision making process and supporting them whether or not they chose to participate in remembrances, discussions, walkouts or other modes of peaceful protest or petitioning.

How did your districts handle this event or how might your school handle an event like this in the future? Please share.

Greg Fredricks is a social studies teacher and administrative intern in the Arlington Central School District. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughters.

*Photo credit to Phil Benante.

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