This Wednesday, students are walking out of America’s schools in protest of gun violence. It’s projected that 2,500 schools will participate. As I scan Facebook and Twitter and listen to the parents sitting in the bleachers with me at my kids’ sporting events, one thing is clear: There is no agreement over how schools should handle these walkouts. I have no problem with my children, though a bit young now, walking out of school to protest an issue that is important to them—though I’d certainly expect it to be an issue that they’ve taken the time to research and understand. I would, however, have a problem if their decision to walk out of school was officially sanctioned by the school and free from consequences. Sacrifice is part of what makes protest so powerful. It is certainly true that the movement around school safety and greater gun control has tremendous momentum at the moment and the upcoming school walkouts—and the schools’ varying responses to them—are evidence of the tremendous political pressure school leaders and community leaders feel in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. While there appears to be confusion on the part of parents and students about the purpose of the walkout, Dakin Andone of CNN explains it as a protest that is part memorial and part protest action.
Students and teachers across the United States will walk out of their schools and universities to honor the lives of the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas and press lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws, according to EMPOWER, the group organizing the action.
And there are specific demands embedded in this protest action. Empower is the youth branch of the Women’s March and is where the idea of the national walkout originated. Whether one agrees with the walkout or not, it is a political action.
What’s a Protest Without Sacrifice?
America exists on a foundation of protest. It is a defining feature of democracy. Brave citizens across our history have literally faced fire hoses, dogs, beatings, jail, and even death in the name of protest and yet, somehow, parents and advocates across America think their children should be allowed—and even encouraged—to walk out of school without even the risk of a consequence. I’m sorry, what? It is highly unlikely that the majority of students will take the time to study the issues, learn the names of their representatives in Congress, and think deeply about the very serious issue of school safety if there is no accountability attached to the their act of civil disobedience. In fact, if the school officially sanctions the action, there is no disobedience. Or sacrifice. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment if people believe that students have a constitutional right to walk out of class and exit their school buildings free of consequences. Free speech means that we are free to say what we want and not be jailed for it. Or killed for it. The First Amendment does not free us from the consequences that may come as a result of our choice to exercise that right. People are fired for things they say all the time and students find themselves in trouble for things they choose to say. I highly doubt that those touting the First Amendment as the reason students can walk out—free of consequences—would say the same about racist language or words that bullies other students. District leaders and school leaders who choose to officially support the walkouts on Wednesday will have set a dangerous precedent. If they are to be consistent and unbiased, they will have to allow students to walk out of their classes and out of the building to stand up for any political belief, including ones that are far less popular. Are we ready to allow students to walk out of school, free of consequences, to protest limits on the Second Amendment, or to march against abortion with graphic posters of babies in utero? Are school leaders willing to support their students who choose to wear their red “Make America Great Again” hats and walk out of class in support of President Trump’s agenda? If my own children are inspired and passionate enough about an issue whether it’s gun safety or something else, to walk out of school, they will likely have my full support. And the school will have my full support in handing out a consequence for their decision. The last thing I want my children to believe about the world is that they are entitled to break the rules, even in the name of protest, and face no consequence. I want them to believe that their discomfort—which obviously pales in comparison to those who have come before them—is worth whatever cause they believe in so firmly that they are willing to get up and walk out of school.
Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Gerald Herbert.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...