The National School Walk Out: What are youth learning?

14 Mar

Today is the National School Walk Out, in which reportedly thousands of students across the US are participating. A colleague sent me this article from The Guardian, urging adults to “Drive them to a march. Buy their gas. Whatever it takes, support all kids marching today.

In the article, Sarah Smarsh notes “a social media refrain [that] has emerged among sympathetic adults: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. The ‘permanent record’ they talk about doesn’t exist. Your high school punishments are meaningless once you graduate… March on.”

To which I say, yes.


I appreciate the clarification that most actions and their consequences are situational–ex. things that happen in high school are often contained within the community and the records (formal and informal) of that school. Of course, with the power of social media, it’s arguable that there is a permanent record of sorts, at least virtually. And it’s simply true that some actions and consequences have in the past and will in the future transcend their locality because of the sheer size, impact, significance and communicability (once again, thank you, internet) of the events. Just search a phrase like “college acceptances retracted” and see what pops up, including infractions at your high school that your school feels a duty to report to your next prospective community.

Which brings me to the perspective from which this article seems to be written: there’s an underlying foundation of privilege.

Notice that the headline opens with two financial ways to support today’s activism. Absolutely, yes, if you have a car and disposable income to cover someone else’s gas, please do use those tools for social justice. And, there are plenty of non-additional cost or equipment-intensive ways to support youth today, including cheering when you walk by a march, joining them for a few minutes, writing a letter to your representative/congressperson or talking with youth about what they’re going to do tomorrow. It’s critical to convey from the top that this isn’t only about how to support youth if you happen to have the financial resources. This is about a diverse group of adults supporting a hopefully diverse group of youth in making themselves heard.

Then, back to the refrain: Don’t listen when people say protesting will hurt your future. I believe it’s more honest and useful to say: Protesting may hurt some future avenues for you. Just like not protesting may. It’s up to you always to discern and choose which possibilities are worth it to you. And which potential consequences you can afford.

The idea that all youth can equally afford to be civilly disobedient is just untrue. And irresponsible to suggest. Protest in its very nature challenges authority. Who is immunized from any and all consequences to their actions? No one. But you have better odds when you have some authority standing behind you, whether that authority comes from your identity (ex. whiteness, wealth); or your family and community’s identity and resources (ex. a parent who is a lawyer, connections at your school or local police department, or just coming from “the right neighborhood”).

Privilege as it plays out regarding the National School Walk Out and other activism in general has made me wonder: what are we teaching our youth about social action? Many of the independent schools with whom I work have planned with or on behalf of students regarding today. Specifically, schools are articulating how they are supporting participation in today’s event, and what is or isn’t acceptable (ex. younger children are not allowed to leave campus, while US/HS students will be supervised and/or accorded space in front of the school). So what are the potential lessons learned by students who are ostensibly being “supported” today?

  • What issues to care about. Because support for today’s protest against gun violence in schools is not identical to support in the same schools for activism supporting DACA protections, transgender rights or the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • What side to take on these issues. Where is the space for students who actually advocate for maintaining or increasing gun ownership rights? The students who are indifferent? And how are we cultivating discernment–not just a hive mentality–among all students, including those who, because they identify into a popular opinion majority, are at particular risk of mindlessly basking in a sense of right(eous)ness, rather than thinking critically through the issues? Notably, in 2017 in SF, the Women’s March coincided with an antiabortion march. Some of the schools that explicitly promoted or supported participation in the Women’s March did not even mention the antiabortion march. I’m not arguing that all issues are of equal importance or that all sides of any given issue are equal. I am asking: how are we teaching students to discern equivalence and i in social issues? How do they learn that white supremacy and civil rights for all racial identities aren’t equal perspectives, socially, morally or legally? And, to bring the focus back to today’s walk out, how do they address what is and isn’t equivalent about the different positions on gun violence in the US, and why their schools as institutions may take a position–not just be neutral?
  • That resistance, protest and civil disobedience are always risk-free. With good intention, some schools are extending their support to students marching against gun violence today through by deciding that students will not be penalized for participating. I’ve seen this before in everything from coordinating around senior cut day (when schools inform teachers that they shouldn’t assign homework or plan any quizzes, and ask parents/guardians to communicate with the school about planned absences) to supporting absences due to other activism (again, see: Women’s Marches). This is great, and… I think reinforces a privileged notion of activism. That it never costs you anything or poses any risks financially, socially, emotionally, or physically.
  • That resistance should always happen on the terms that authorities to which you are beholden offer you. It is absolutely a school’s responsibility to say that students cannot just leave campus (especially younger ones) because schools must consider safety and liability. But the school’s responsibility is not the individual student’s–or teacher’s or staff person’s or administrator’s. I write this not intending to say that all students should buck all considerations or safety and rules that are put in place on their behalf by the adults that care for and have responsibility for them. I am saying that resistance and protest by definition take on institutions and authorities that have been setting the rules of engagement. And without abdicating the responsibility we have right now for the children and youth we serve, many of us have a concurrent responsibility (under mission and core values) to prepare the same students to stand up when there is no authority behind them to guarantee their safety and success.

So I say yes, and… to supporting students’ engagement at today’s march, and the next demonstration on this and other issues, and on all the days in between specially organized events, when we’re still practicing our values and have the opportunity to stand up for what we believe.

** Thanks to my colleague MB for sharing this article.

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