In recent weeks, students of Parkland, Florida, who survived a mass shooting at their school on February 14th, have inspired high school students across the country and here in Illinois with their leadership and courage. Some students are learning for the first time that their voices matter and that by banding together they can affect public policy.
This is a rare moment – when a fundamental lesson in civics can move beyond the classroom and come to life. As educators, you can take full advantage of this moment, and nurture your students’ efforts to learn for themselves about participatory democracy. In this way, you can help this generation of students to develop into active and responsible citizens.
Alternatively, you can squelch the students’ efforts, and thereby contribute to an all-too prevalent cynicism about the individual’s ability to make a difference in government and society.
We encourage you to seize this moment and use the determination so evident in students to foster civic pride and responsibility. There are many ways that administrators and teachers can play this role, including the following:
- Interpret absentee policies liberally to allow students to attend demonstrations. Our laws and policies implicitly recognize that missing a day or two of class will not destroy a student’s education. Students are typically allowed to skip school for religious holidays, doctor’s appointments, and family events. Attending a demonstration should be viewed as an equally valid reason to miss school occasionally.
- Ensure that policies regarding on-campus speech allow ample room for public discussion. Students may wish to express their views while on school grounds in a variety of ways – from rallying at the flagpole before school, to distributing literature, to wearing t-shirts. While schools may regulate this speech to prevent disruption of education, they should remember that this sort of discussion is also educational, and tread lightly on student’s political expression.
- Foster discussion among students with different views. Students are highly motivated to find ways to prevent school shootings. But they will inevitably have different opinions about how best to do that. Teach students the skills to argue persuasively for their viewpoint, to listen respectfully to other views, and to be open to changing their minds. Demonstrate equal respect for students who choose to attend demonstrations and students who choose not to do so.
- Provide historical context. The current wave of student activism is part of a rich American tradition. Teaching students about the movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and other causes will enhance students’ experiences and help to inform their decisions about how best to effect change in the world.
This is a unique moment in history, and a singular opportunity for many high school students. The lessons you teach your students now will be with them for life. We urge you to foster your students’ civic awakening, and help to ensure the health of our democracy in decades to come.
We encourage you to act wisely and compassionately.
The ACLU of Illinois