On March 14, 2018, at 10 a.m. students at Owensboro High School joined millions of their counterparts nationwide walking out of their high schools to call attention to issues related to school violence.
Since exercising their First Amendment right, many students have encountered both supporting and opposing voices—a good lesson for high school students. Welcome to democracy! When you publicly express yourself, you must be cognizant of the consequences of your speech.
As a superintendent, I have run into similar sentiments, with many either thanking or chastising our district for allowing students to protest during the school day.
To those who question the decision, I admit, this one was a tough call. For me, there were a few compelling issues to allow the students to participate in the manner they did.
First, it was a national protest taking place at thousands of high schools all over the country. Most of the walkouts took place, as ours did, outside the walls of the school, in the public square.
Second, the walkout was a student-organized and a student-led activity, participation was optional. The students approached the administration at OHS about the event. School officials proactively worked with the students to make sure the event was peaceful and conforming to standards of public assembly afforded to all under the Constitution. OHS leadership also worked closely with the Owensboro Police Department to assure the safety of the students that chose to participate.
Third, it is important to note that students do not surrender their constitutional right to free speech and expression at school. The Supreme Court of the United States in Tinker vs. Des Moines Board of Education said schools could not deny students these rights provided the speech is not “substantially disruptive.” In our opinion, working with students to take part in a 17-minute national walkout was less disruptive than denying them that right. Denying them would have caused more disorder and discipline issues. Some of the students would have made the decision to walkout anyway without our support or protection, just as other students around the country did in some jurisdictions where such support was not afforded to them.
Lastly, the OHS administration took great pains to make sure students with multiple perspectives could participate and be heard. It seems that some feel like the district allowed students to participate as a way to promote a liberal anti-gun agenda. That is an oversimplification of an issue that is far more complex than dichotomously pro or con around the Second Amendment. Very few students I have interacted with in any of our high schools are advocating the elimination of the Second Amendment. To most students, this is a nuanced and a many-sided issue – their understanding of it, as well as current events in the news are equally complex. The school respected and encouraged the views of students on all sides of this issue.
This generation of students was born around the time of the Columbine High School shooting. They have grown up in a school setting where lockdowns are more significant than fire drills and can be categorized as an integral part any random school day. The tragedies at Margaret Stoneman Douglass High School have ignited a wave of student activism all over the nation. This moment is an important time for this generation because students are finding their voices on all sides of this issue. Our job as educators is to support them as they become citizens in a democracy.
In trying to mute their speech, we as a school system would have failed our students and conveyed to them that their voice did not matter.
Instead, we allowed them 17 minutes in the public square with millions of their counterparts around the country, taking part in one of the most teachable moments in the messy history of American democracy. The students were well behaved, they returned to class without disruption, and carried on the remainder of the school day as normal.
Whether we agree or disagree with their point of view, we as members of the public should applaud the fact that students are becoming actively engaged in public life. As a school district, we did not support any one particular point of view held by students in the walkout. We merely supported our students and their right to be heard as citizens of our great country.