Generation Why

Students find their voice in the wake of tragedy

Story and photos by Glenn Cook

On Valentine’s Day, Lucy Calderon and Cameron Daniel saw how a “close-to-home story” could take on a much larger scale. That’s when a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and opened fire, killing 14 students and three teachers in just 6 minutes and 30 seconds.

As student journalists at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Calderon and Daniel were working on a feature story about a school shooting in a neighboring county. Three weeks before, on Jan. 23, two students were killed and 19 injured when a 15-year-old boy opened fire in an open area at Marshall County High School.

“After Parkland happened, we knew this was so much bigger than we anticipated, and it was something we were dealing with in a place that’s close to where we live,” Calderon says. “Parkland has changed everything.”

For Calderon, Daniel, and countless other youth across the nation, the Stoneman Douglas shooting and its aftermath represent a tipping point for student activism and civic engagement. No longer content to sit on the sidelines, these students—led by Parkland survivors —are marching and protesting at a rate not seen since the Vietnam War.

Over the past three months, students have walked out of schools across the U.S. on two occasions — for 17 minutes on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting and on the anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy. More than 1 million participated in the March 24 student-led “March for Our Lives” protests in the nation’s capital and at 800 other sites around the world.

“Young people are tired of not having a voice,” says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. “They’re frustrated. Even in good schools, they don’t feel like their voice is being taken seriously, that administrators and the powers that be condescend to them and write them off. And they have a lot to say.”

RIPPING OFF THE SCAB

Today’s high school students weren’t even born when 14 people were killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Since then, more than 150,000 students in 43 states have experienced a shooting at school, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“The fact that we’ve grown up this way, coming to expect this to happen, is disgusting,” says Daniel, a senior. “We’ve had dozens of threats at my school in the four years I’ve been there, and it’s so ridiculous that this is what I have to worry about when I go to school.”

Grieving in public by pushing for changes in policy and laws, the Stoneman Douglas survivors ripped a collective scab off a host of issues — school violence, gun control and safety, arming teachers, mental health, the power of protest, race, privilege, technology and internet trolling — and thrust them into the local, state, and national spotlights.

“Everyone handles grief differently, and in a majority of communities where this has happened people have just retreated,” Calderon says. “They want the media out and they just want to be to themselves. The way Parkland is handling it, and I think they’re coping with it in the best way, is by channeling it into change. That is inspiring people across the country, even across the world, to believe, ‘Yes, we do have the ability to make that change happen.’”

Mary Beth Tinker, whose wearing of a black armband to protest the Vietnam War led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case on students’ free speech rights that bears her name (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District), says she is “very encouraged to see youth turning their sadness into action and saying this is making them feel better.”

“There is some power in saying and believing ‘enough is enough,’” Tinker says. “It’s gotten to the point where students are being asked to live with a new normal, which is the threat of gun violence every moment of their lives now. It doesn’t matter where they live, what their demographic is. This is their reality, and they’re fed up.”

Ted McConnell, who heads the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, says the Stoneman Douglas students benefited from a Florida law that requires all middle-schoolers to take a civic learning course. The seniors who have led the #NeverAgain movement took the class two years after the law was passed.

“You have to wonder about why this particular group of students in this particular high school and in this particular community can lead this type of movement,” McConnell says. “They’ve had a superb grasp of the power of social media, and certainly they are growing up in a middle-class/upper-middle-class community that has more resources. But, at heart, they realize this is something bigger than just their community, and you can see that by their inclusion of other students who’ve experienced gun violence in urban centers.”

A MOVEMENT

So, will the movement fizzle, or are the March for Our Lives and the walkouts a sign of history repeating itself?

Tinker equates the push by the Stoneman Douglas students to the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the 1963 protest in which youth of all ages marched through the Alabama city. The crusade, in which hundreds of children as young as 8 were arrested, became a turning point in the civil rights movement.

“We built off the civil rights movement too, and learned a lot from that,” Tinker says of the Vietnam-era protests. “These kids are building on what kids of color have been doing, whether it’s DACA or the Black Lives Matter movement. They’re connecting the dots, they’re politically savvy, and they have a higher awareness of racial and social injustice. They’re talking about how things aren’t the same for everyone.”

Haynes says students won’t be able to maintain their momentum if “all we talk about is this mass shooting, or mass shootings, or just about guns.”

“Translating their grief, their horror, in this way for changes to public policy is rare for any age group, much less young people,” he says. “It really has to be more broadly about what kind of society we are living in, and how this affects people who deal with this daily. That’s how you build lasting support for this type of movement.”

PEACEFUL CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

Mass walkouts by students draw attention, and in some cases, schools have received negative press after threatening to suspend youth who engage in peaceful demonstrations. To provide some guidance, NSBA has published "Coercion, Conscience, and the First Amendment", a downloadable document that provides information on regulating student and employee speech.

Under the standard established by the 1969 Tinker Supreme Court ruling, students have a constitutional right to free speech at school. However, districts can regulate speech if it “materially or substantially interferes with the operations of schools or impinges on the rights of others.”

“There’s something called civil disobedience in this country,” says Tinker, who speaks in school districts around the country, telling her story. “If there is a moral value that you feel strongly about, you might decide to break it to take a stand, but it has to be peaceful, and you have to be willing to take the consequences. What I always tell students to ask themselves is, ‘Where is the line and what are you willing to sacrifice?’ It’s up to each individual person. I can’t tell them where that line is for anybody.”

In most cases, the walkouts have been peaceful. Calderon, for example, says students at her school “did not ask permission” from administrators to hold the March and April walkouts, but asked that they work together.

“We told them, ‘This is what we’re going to do. This is how it’s going to be done. We want you to meet us there and help us get security and organize this,’” she says. “Now that they see all the publicity and that the students are capable, they’re trusting us a lot more to express and exercise our First Amendment rights. It’s been a win-win.”


Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia.

 

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