It’s been a common refrain for years that young people are not engaged in the political process — and that a big part of the reason is that schools have failed to teach them civic education.
Now that we seem to have entered a new era of protest — started by student survivors of a mass school shooting in Florida — it would appear that a lot of kids are learning in school to be active citizens by thinking creatively about how to solve problems and taking action to reach their goals.
Last week, many thousands of students around the country walked out of class for a 17-minute protest to mark the one-month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting deaths of 17 people — and in some cases, students were punished for doing so. On Saturday, student-led protests across the country are calling on adults to take action to make kids safer.
This post, by law professor Shelley Dunck, explores a different way to look at what those students did: use the lessons they have learned in school to promote a civic goal.
Dunck is the director of the Business Law Clinic at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, an effort to expand the range of voices speaking out in the public square on critical issues.
By Shelley Dunck
Some school officials were not happy when kids walked out of class this month to participate in a national protest against gun violence — and they punished the students for it. But instead of viewing the young people primarily as rule-breakers, they could have chosen to applaud the students for putting into practice class lessons on civic engagement and problem-solving.
In response to the student walkouts last week on the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 14 killings of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., some high school administrators gave students detention, marked the kids truant or otherwise punished students who elected to participate in these peaceful protests. Some students were paddled for their actions.
What these school officials fail to recognize is that the motive of these students was not to waste time or disrespect school authority, but, rather, to challenge assumptions and engage in what educators would describe as experiential learning. The actions of these students can be seen as applied learning successes.
The average high school student studies history and government, prepares and delivers presentations on various topics to their fellow classmates, performs analytical arguments, writes persuasive papers and completes research projects in the school setting.
By organizing meaningful protests, these students are actively practicing the application of this knowledge in a truth-to-power fashion. They are engaging in critical reflection, deliberation, and individual and coordinated communication. The result is a well-organized public display of what can accurately be described as enhanced problem-solving activities.
Isn’t this what parents, educators and everybody else in this country want from our children and young adults?
Certainly schools cannot allow student demonstrations and protests to disrupt the school schedule every day. And there will always be questions about what issues rise to the level of importance to permit such disruption. But the fact that it is hard to draw a line does not take away from the fact that there are certain historic instances where well-organized and meaningful protest in high schools should be respected by school administrators and recognized by all as the educational opportunities they represent. The goal of high school is to prepare young people for adulthood.
The reaction of principals and administrators to punish the behavior of the students who walked out to protest gun violence contradicts the mission of our secondary-level learning institutions: to prepare young adults to think and advocate for themselves so that they may be productive future contributors both individually and for the collective good of our country.
Understanding this, many school districts have been supportive of these student efforts, acknowledging the students’ right to peacefully protest and emphasizing the “teachable moment.”
Earlier this month, for example, high school students at John Burroughs School in Ladue, Missouri rallied to defend an openly gay athlete and classmate targeted by anti LBGTQ rally organized by the Westboro Baptist Church. The headmaster was supportive, allowing students to gather for a 40-minute display of support, followed by a unity walk and a music filled assembly.
The coordinated and well-communicated efforts of students at the school are clearly taken from the playbook of high school students across the country who are organizing coordinated peaceful protests of gun violence to send a message to lawmakers to enact gun control laws.
As a clinical professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where I oversee a clinic where students deal with real clients, I witness experiential learning every day. Our students work with for-profit and non-profit start-ups, and these opportunities are often the first opportunity in law school that they have to experience actual interaction with a client. In these moments, students truly understand how their classroom knowledge can be applied in a meaningful way. The experience is always transformative.
Now students in Parkland — along with others around the country — are advocating for their personal safety and on behalf of classmates who were among the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by a 19-year-old with an AR-15 magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle. Their actions are already creating change — the Florida legislature has already passed gun control restrictions (though it did not pass an automatic weapons ban sought by Parkland students).
By organizing and participating in peaceful protest around issues of safety, fairness and respect, these high school students are problem-solving by translating and actively applying skills that they have learned and practiced in the classroom to problems they see in the world around them. The opportunity to organize and communicate one’s views to the outside world is valuable, empowering and in line with these educational goals.
To view this in any other way is a disservice to our students.