A better way for schools to handle students protesting gun violence

A better way for schools to handle students protesting gun violence
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A Houston-area school district was in the news recently, and the coverage was less than favorable. Curtis Rhodes, superintendent of the Needville Independent School District (ISD), had warned his students that any student participating in a walkout or protest during school hours would be suspended. In Prince William County, Virginia, the superintendent of the county school system initially threatened protesting students with disciplinary action before walking that threat back. There were many other similar examples.

These protests were a reaction to the horrific shooting that left 17 students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School dead and more injured. Students all over the country have been staging walkouts and other forms of protests to make their voices heard on the issue of gun violence in the wake of this tragedy, and on March 14, students from across the country will walk out of their schools for 17 minutes.

While this organized 17-minute protest is likely to be a minimal disruption, larger protests continue to flare up and many school districts are now having to decide between the bad press that comes from quashing their students’ abilities to protest and allowing an interruption to their primary function, which is education. Rhodes framed the debate in such black and white terms when he asked students to “please understand that we are here for an education and not a political protest.”

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However, the debate is not binary. Schools can communicate to students that they hear and respect their concerns and fears while still performing their core duty of education. If Rhodes really is worried about protesting students not receiving their education, then why not offer an alternative to protesting that actually educates them?

 

If a school is facing a critical mass of students looking to protest or walk out over the issue of gun violence in this country, as Needville ISD did, they may want to consider the following proposal.

Use this opportunity to host a one day educational “conference” centered around this issue and the political process in general. Take a break from regularly scheduled school activities and focus solely on teaching civics. Here are some activities that can be planned:

  • Workshops teaching students how to connect with their political representatives such as their state’s governor, state legislators, and federal congressional representatives.
  • A town hall featuring a local politician such the district’s congressman or congresswoman where students can ask the questions.
  • An expert debate moderated by the student class president or other leading student figure.
  • A fundraising event with the proceeds donated to the Stoneman Douglas Victims’ Fund.
  • Special lectures taught by the school’s government and civics teachers that educate students on current gun laws in their state and in the country.

Finish off the conference with a mock legislative session where students of all political leanings play the roles of congressmen and congresswomen, and set them to the task of taking everything they’ve learned and finding a legislative fix for this problem.

These students are protesting because they want to have their voices heard. Organizing a conference like this would show them that they are being heard. It would show them that at least somebody is listening.

More importantly, it would actually educate them, which is the point of school and the stated primary concern of the Needville ISD. Such a conference would educate students not only on the gun control debate, but it would also educate them about their government.

Civics courses are focused on less and less in high schools, and the students of these schools would likely benefit from a crash course in how our government works. Using a current issue that they clearly care about will ensure students pay closer attention than they ever have.

If a school district is taking the position that protests are disruptive and not good uses of their students’ time, then they owe it to those students to educate them on other ways to make their voices heard. They owe it to those students to educate them about why these laws exists and what steps would be needed to take to change them.

Are some students still going to protest, even if all the expense and time is put into organizing this conference? Probably, but some students are also still going to protest even in the face of a three-day suspension.

So, if you accept the fact that no matter what you do, there will be a disruption and lack of education for some students, don’t choose a path that makes it look like you’re infringing upon the First Amendment. Take advantage of the opportunity to educate your students about something critically important that they actually want to learn about.

Alexander Lange is a director in the litigation communications practice at LEVICK, a strategic communications firm. Prior to working at LEVICK, he worked as a criminal defense attorney in Northern Virginia.