By Tessa Castor
When I got on Facebook this morning, I was met with a timeline full of posts to my hometown’s Facebook page, a page generally dedicated to business announcements and questions about snow days. This morning’s posts, however, were of a different nature.
At 10 a.m. today, thousands – tens of thousands – of high school students walked out of their classrooms. They remained outside for 17 minutes, and returned to their classrooms. This national walkout took place on the month anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 high school students and faculty members were gunned down by another student.
“The 17-minute protests unfolding at hundreds of schools are intended to pressure Congress to approve gun control legislation,” an article by the New York Times said.
The political nature of this walkout brought a lot of discourse to my small hometown – one post by a student has received over 190 comments so far. One commenter said, “Thursday everything will be right back to how it was, nothing is gonna change. But all you young adults and non adults believe everything you hear.”
If you know me, you know I’m not very vocal about my political views.
I’m not going to tell you how I feel about gun control, and I’m not going to tell you how I feel about the death penalty, and I’m not going to tell you whether I’m a democrat or republican. I am going to tell you, however, that people in this country have different beliefs on each of those topics.
And here’s the thing: they have a right to those beliefs, even if you don’t agree with them. To me, trying to stifle the voices of those thousands of students is a violation of their constitutional rights.
“Remember, students have a First Amendment right to protest, just like anybody else,” said an article by CNN. “The landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case pretty much settled that legal question. In it, the Supreme Court ruled students don’t ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’”
Dr. Diane Nickelson, assistant professor of teacher education, worked in the public school system for 31 years before coming to Southwestern. She worked with preschoolers to high school seniors in high school in the Wellington and Clearwater school districts. Nickelson currently serves on the school board in Clearwater, so she knew about the event and how it was organized before it happened.
“I was excited to see that this was a student-initiated process where students wanted to use the avenues that we all have,” said Nickelson. “I think administrators should encourage kids to engage in those civic responsibilities and opportunities. Peaceful protests are part of our rights as citizens.”
One beautiful thing about this country is our First Amendment rights – freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble and freedom to petition the government. Those freedoms begin at birth (or conception, depending on your stance), and they exist for the entirety of your life. Your First Amendment rights don’t begin when you turn 18 or 21 – you have a right to your beliefs and to the expression of those beliefs regardless of your age.
This is why I have a problem with some adults’ responses to the students participating in national walkout.
These adults can claim that the students are immature. They can claim they’re childish. They can claim they’re ignorant of politics and government and “reality,” but whether they’d like to admit it or not, the students have a right to their beliefs, and to exercise those beliefs through protest. Any attempts to silence these students are an insult to the lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Columbine High School in 1999, Parkland in February and every other school shooting in our nation’s history.
Despite the media’s portrayal of every student demanding gun regulation in their walkout, it appears that some students walked out with the idea of eliminating bullying in the school system. The same student who made the previously mentioned Facebook post commented the following, in response to a claim that students left class only to avoid schoolwork:
We actually focused our discussion around the importance of being kind to one another. We didn’t talk about politics at all! We took a moment to remember all that we have lost, had an optional group prayer and talked about being kind. It was honestly amazing and extremely powerful and peaceful.
“I feel like we have a tendency to think young people don’t care and don’t listen,” said Nickelson. “I would encourage anyone who really felt that way to meet with them, to talk with them. While some people seem to view it as an act of rebellion, I really feel it was an act of coming together, to unite about something they really believed about.”
“In regards to adults thinking that students shouldn’t have a voice over issues with gun restrictions, I think it’s ridiculous,” said Emily Jones, elementary education junior. “As a student myself, I have always been told to stand up for what I believe in. As a future teacher, I plan on telling my own students the exact same thing.”
I don’t know if I would have participated in the walkout if I was still a student in high school, but it would have – and should have – been my choice. I would have been educated about why I was or was not walking out, and I would have been passionate about it. We cannot discredit someone else’s passions because they conflict with our own.
You can claim these students don’t know what they’re talking about. You can claim they don’t know how the world works. You can claim that these students are “just kids.” But, whether you like it or not, these kids are the future. These kids will be voting in elections, serving in the military and running for government. They have a voice now, and they’ll continue to have a voice. Maybe it’s worth listening to them every now and then.
Tessa Castor is a sophomore majoring in English. You may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.