Schools Must Remain Neutral on Student Protests

On March 17, students at an Ohio public high school staged a walkout in the name of common sense gun legislation. School officials waived all punishment measures for students who chose to participate and sent all those who didn’t to a study hall. But when a student wanted to remain apolitical and refused to report to study hall, the school district became embroiled in a controversy that was portrayed by opponents of common sense gun control as political prejudice. The school district maintains the student wasn’t suspended for political reasons, but the fact remains that if the administration had remained neutral instead of aiding protesters, no scrutiny over politicization of the event by the school would have manifested.

Many school administrators supported the movement by refraining from punishing those who walked out of schools. In the process, however, administrators have had to express the message of the protests through their own, diluted lens as to negate severe examination of their motivation. The negative impacts of schools sanctioning student protests are twofold: it de-legitimizes the student-led aspect of the movement and creates points of attack for gun control opponents. Furthermore, administrative refusal to punish students for breaking rules amounts to the school taking a stance, contrary to a school’s job to remain apolitical and educate students.

The Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines addressed a school’s suspension of students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. While the case established that students’ rights don’t end at the school doors and those who wore armbands couldn’t be suspended, students can still be penalized for actions that disrupt school proceedings. By choosing not to punish students who disrupt school proceedings, schools fail to perform their duty to uphold a student’s right to education. When schools ignore that precedent, they undermine the very fabric of protests by explaining a student-organized movement organized through adult terms. They cannot capture the intentions and emotions of students who organize and participate in these protests, and thus any explanation they give to justify the school approval of the protest distorts the intended messages. A student who disrupts school in the name of gun control must not be punished more than a student who disrupts class in any other way, but not be punished less either.

This isn’t to say I oppose walkouts — I support them and young activism in general. Students must exercise their First Amendment right to protest in a constitutionally protected way if they wish to avoid punishment. However, many of the most powerful protests in history went beyond constitutionally protected measures. Think of the impact that those punished in the name of protest have had — Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. What if none of them had gone to prison? These technically illegal movements incited change, especially through the creation of martyr figures, whose decisions to suffer the consequences for their beliefs demonstrated their conviction.

This conviction is integral to movement-building, as it gives advocates’ thoughts more legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas. These students should be punished for breaking school rules, but they should wear that punishment as a badge of honor. Because many universities have expressed they won’t punish students who are punished for peaceful protests, there are few long-term repercussions students might face for acting on their convictions. As U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963 who has gone to jail 45 times for protesting, once stated, we must get “in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble,” to make change.

But the impact of schools condoning student protests extends beyond how the movement progresses. When high schools state they won’t punish students walking out, they take a stance on the issue. Public school administrations should do their job —educate students — and avoid taking a political stance. When an authority figure gives you permission to do something, it is no longer a protest but an enactment of the authority figure’s will and a de facto stance set by the school. These are points that opponents of gun control attach to and utilize to delegitimize the movement.

Those who support high schools allowing students to walk out for gun control must remember that whatever standard is applied to these protesters must be upheld when students walk out in favor of less popular views. If a peaceful pro-Second Amendment student walkout is organized, those students deserve the same lack of punishment if they disrupt school proceedings. The concept of equal access to rights is fundamental to our democracy and is undermined when authority figures determine on an ad hoc basis whether to enforce regulations.

Spencer Castle is a College freshman from Kansas City, Mo.

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