In South Florida and across the country, thousands of students walked out of class Wednesday to honor the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, exactly one month ago.
At some venues,the names of the victims were read aloud, short speeches were made, and students soon after returned to class. At others, there was little, if any, participation. And at some, there was an expectation of punishment for those teens who left class without permission, defying school or systemwide bans on participating in the planned nationwide protest.
All of which is perfectly fine. It is heartening to see a generation stretching its political wings and seeking a remedy to the roll call of recent mass shootings — from Sandy Hook Elementary to the Las Vegas Strip to Douglas. Hearing young people identify with the students at Douglas who faced the nightmare of a teen gunman stalking the hallways with a semiautomatic AR-15 is a powerful thing. In some schools, the protests were embraced by school administrators and teachers who helped guide the conversations, identifying this as a “teachable moment.”
And in yet others, participation in protests was banned, perhaps because of concern, ironically, for student safety and disruptive behavior; perhaps because administrators felt uncomfortable with the issue of gun control or a concern for how emotional these issues have become for students. In Harford County, for example, it was made clear to students and their guardians that students would be punished if they chose to leave class.
As for students who may face detention or a similar fate for walking out of class when they were told by school authorities not to do so? That’s fair As long as the punishment is proportionate to the offense, it is perfectly fine for a school system to impose rules for conduct and then punish students for defying them. And here’s the best part: Students should proudly accept those consequences. They could scarcely be getting a better real-life lesson in what social protest is all about.
From the Boston Tea Party to the modern Civil Rights Movement, civil disobedience has never been without adverse consequences. Henry Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they all took their lumps standing up (or sitting down) for what they believed in. When Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, nobody took it easy on her. She was arrested. King famously spent some time in the Birmingham Jail. You want to make a meaningful statement? Sometimes, there is a price to be paid.
Are the students who walked out of class Wednesday morning serious about doing something about mass shootings, particularly advocating for restrictions on gun ownership where they face a formidable foe in the National Rifle Association? If so, it will take a lot more than an extended recess, it will take commitment, it will require a great deal of homework, and it will mean sacrifice and doggedness. As we’ve noted before, the outspoken student leaders from Parkland seem to have that fire and urgency.
The grownups have surely failed to do much about the problem. And President Donald Trump, with support of the NRA, wants to put more guns in the hands of more such teachers. So who is more naive, the adults who put their faith in “good guys with guns” to prevent future shootings in schools or students who temporarily left their classrooms in search of better answers?
A longer version of this editorial first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.