For high school students across the country, the week offered a stark lesson in political activism, led by grieving teens from the latest American school to fall victim to a mass shooting.
Spontaneously galvanized high school kids have become the centerpiece in our seemingly unending and intractable argument over the prevalence of guns in our society. Teenagers staged demonstrations this week in a score of communities, and at least three major anti-gun observances specifically inviting student participation are scheduled in the weeks to come.
At least one Texas school district, as you perhaps heard, is having none of it. In a pre-emptive message posted on social media and sent to parents, the superintendent for schools in Needville, southwest of Houston, warned that kids participating in any kind of demonstration during class hours would face suspension.
“All will be suspended for 3 days and parent notes will not alleviate the discipline,” wrote Superintendent Curtis Rhodes in a message heavy on stern language and exclamation points. “A disruption of the school will not be tolerated.”
The district’s Facebook page was abruptly shut down Thursday; perhaps someone pointed out that students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were shot to death on Valentine’s Day, endured a disruption that pales in comparison to a student walkout.
The issue raises some questions, however, and poses something of a headache for other school districts trying to balance students’ concerns at a pivotal moment in our national debate with the workaday need to jam physics and French verbs into their noggins.
A quick survey of Dallas’ biggest school districts found that some have a policy ready to go, and others are waiting-to-see. They’re waiting to find out what kind of events are planned, and — perhaps — whether this movement loses steam in the coming weeks, in the all-too-familiar pattern of political concern and popular activism following other gun massacres in recent years.
A spokeswoman for the Dallas Independent School District said there likely won’t be discussion of the issue unless administrators get word of a specific event involving students being planned. Last year, the DISD took no action beyond recording unexcused absences to an estimated 15,000 who cut school to participate in immigration policy protests.
Fort Worth schools have already mapped out a policy, the same one used last year when students there participated in immigration rallies.
“Should students leave their school without permission, it will be counted as an unexcused absence,” said Fort Worth ISD spokesman Clint Bond in an e-mail. Their parents will be notified, but no other disciplinary action was specified.
“School personnel will not attempt to stop the students but will advise them of the consequences,” Bond continued. In the event of a mass walkout, school personnel and possibly police officers will act as escorts to ensure students’ safety, he said.
To date, three main nationwide events have been planned with student participation in mind.
The first two dates don’t pose a problem for most area schools. A March 14 “National School Walkout,” planned by some of the same organizers as this year’s and last Women’s Marches, falls on a Wednesday - but several local school districts, including DISD, will be observing spring break.
A March 24 “March For Our Lives” calling for gun control measures is planned for Washington, D.C., as well as several other cities. A Facebook page indicates Dallas students will participate in the event, with a gathering at City Hall Plaza from noon to 3 p.m. That date falls on a Saturday, so schools will not be affected.
If this movement continues to gain traction, there’s a third event scheduled that would conflict with school schedules. A “National High School Walkout” has been called for April 20 — a Friday. It will be the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, widely regarded as the nation’s horrifying introduction to the modern era of school gun massacres.
That walkout, reportedly organized by a Connecticut high school teen, is outlined on a Change.org petition. At midday Thursday, the petition had more than 150,000 pledges of participation from across the country.
“Nothing has changed since Columbine,” states the petition. “Let us start a movement that lets the government know the time for change is now.”
Many of us have clear recollections of the horror at Columbine. I went to Colorado to report in the days following the massacre, and the community’s shock and grief left an impression I will never forget.
For many of the young people involved in this new wave of activism, however, Columbine is literally more than a lifetime ago. The threat of mass shooting in schools isn’t a modern horror; it has been on their radar their entire lives.
It is impossible to predict whether this round of protests will lose steam as quickly as its predecessors. Older activists, frustrated by political stonewalling and shouted down by opponents of any gun regulations, keep falling into resignation — until the next tragedy.
It’s just possible — not likely, perhaps, but possible — that high school kids will turn out to be the unexpected agents of sustained momentum.
If students remain as committed to seeking change on April 20, the anniversary of that landmark tragedy, as they were this week, they will have broken new ground in our deadlocked gun debate.
And should they remain that committed, it’s doubtful that their first concern will be the consequences of skipping school. After Parkland, maybe that’s the least of their worries.