The Real Fallout from High School Walkouts

On February 21, many high school students across the country staged a brief walkout from their classes to protest school shootings. Grieving students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Forest are also helping to organize even larger national student walkouts—hashtags #Enough and #NeverAgain— on March 14 and 24 to protest lenient gun laws. These actions are a mistake. Disruptive activism violates students’ freedom to learn, an essential ingredient of academic freedom.

The students at the Parkland high school who helped organize their own walkout and who have organized the coming national walkouts have been lionized in the media. David Hogg, Sara Imam, Cameron Kasky, and several other Parkland students have been featured in interviews on television and cited in news stories for their roles in calling on legislatures to adopt more stringent gun control measures and calling on fellow students across the country to walk out of class in protest.

Hogg, Imam, and the others may be perfectly sincere, but the story is a little more complicated than it first seemed. The students have received a great deal of help from a teachers’ union (it bussed the students to a protest in Tallahassee) and various progressive organizations, including the Women’s March and MoveOn.org. Conservative media responded with accounts such as David Hines’ “Why Did It Take Two Weeks to Discover Parkland Students’ Astroturfing?” and Charles Cooke’s “David Hogg Is Fair Game for Critics.”

In the meantime, college admissions offices across the country have been rushing out announcements that they will not penalize any students who walk out of their classes because of the protests. One such announcement came from Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, who wrote:

For students who have been suspended or who face the threat of suspension, fear not: we at Lawrence University will not change your admission or scholarship decision in light of a suspension related to this kind of peaceful civil action.

Lawrence University is among hundreds of institutions that announced similar policies. Yale, for instance, declared:

Here at @Yale, we are proud to support all students for participating in peaceful walkouts for gun control or other causes, and we will not rescind admissions decisions for students who do so regardless of any school’s disciplinary policy.

Brown, Dartmouth, and MIT are in the same camp. By February 27, at least 117 colleges had said much the same thing, and by March 2, the figure had grown to about 250.

Typically, being suspended from school or significantly disciplined compromises a student’s acceptance at a college, but when it comes to protesting America’s gun laws, colleges and universities are in large numbers willing to make an exception.

The mass murder at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is abhorrent, and the students who witnessed it are surely traumatized. Whether stricter gun laws of other sorts of legislative actions are a wise response is a matter I will leave aside for now. All these—the shootings, the trauma, and the calls for new legislation—rightly overshadow the question of whether walking out of class is an appropriate response.

Colleges and universities, to say nothing of numerous editorial boards, are saying, in effect, ‘Yes, it is. Walking out of class is excellent testimony on behalf of a good cause.’ But they are wrong.

Walking out elevates a feeling of moral urgency above respect for education and the rights of fellow students. Walking out during regular school hours is meant to dramatize how deeply students are touched by the latest school massacre and how strongly they support legislative remedies. The walkouts, of course, won’t change the surrounding debate over Second Amendment rights. The students may hope to persuade elected officials to “do something” to stop the scourge of mass killings in schools. But what they are really doing is mistaking moral vanity for genuine “participation in democracy.”

Walking out of class to drive a political point emphatically subordinates education to the quest for power. To many students, the protests are righteous and perhaps cathartic. But underlying their experience of “making a difference” is the message that the pursuit of political ends justifies the sacrifice of educational priorities.

Walkouts are not costless. They elevate groupthink. Children are extraordinarily vulnerable to peer opinion, and if the prevailing view favors protest, millions will conform not because they care much about the cause but because not conforming will expose them to ridicule. The students who hold contrary views—and surely there are some—will be bullied and, in any case, denied their right to a day of regular public education.

School students who are passionate about supporting new gun legislation have every right to speak up. But they could do so on their own time, not during school hours.

Where did the idea of a school walkout come from? The tactic is far from new. In 1968, for example, student walkouts in Los Angeles were organized by social studies teacher Salvador Castro to protest bias against Chicano students. Justified as “civil disobedience” by progressive activists, such walkouts were relatively rare until about 2014, when they seemed to have emerged as a go-to response for all sorts of activists. Sometimes they are merely local events. In March 2014, 200 students in Massachusetts walked out of their classes to call for a “hard line against fossil fuel infrastructure.” In September 2014, students in Jefferson County, Colorado, a Denver suburb, repeatedly walked out of their classes to protest curricular changes approved by the local school board. In December 2014, after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, some high school students walked out in New York City.

But sometimes the walkouts are national. On November 14, 2016, after the election of President Trump, more than 2,000 students walked out of Washington, DC schools to protest. Similar walkouts were staged across the country. On February 7, 2017, Muslim high school students in New York staged a walkout in opposition to Trump’s travel ban—a cause which echoed in many other cities.

The effectiveness of such walkouts in drawing attention to a cause is not in doubt. They get lots of coverage. Disrupting one’s own education is sometimes depicted by activists as noble self-sacrifice, but typically the burden of the disruptions is also borne by those who have no part in the cause and may even strongly disagree with it. Does “civil disobedience” of this sort justify denying educational opportunity to fellow students, particularly when the protesters have non-disruptive alternatives?

4 thoughts on “The Real Fallout from High School Walkouts”

  1. I very much like the tension between the use of academic freedom by individuals (those protesting) and the collective (those whose academic freedom is hypothetically compromised as a result), as captured in this article. Ultimately, I’d say it was academic freedom to determine for oneself how to lawfully express it, and for those impacted to decide what their lawful response could be. And for the rest of us to criticize both choices.

    I’m not convinced that the walkouts actually have a measurable impact on the freedom to learn. At my university and I’m sure at most, we allow students to miss learning activities, with the potential to impact other students in linked activities, for all sorts of non-public good and non-academic freedom events, such as sport. That level of classroom disruption practiced everywhere around the world must dwarf what is happening in the US over the shootings, and is much harder to compensate for given its ad hoc nature and low numbers in any given class.

    As an educator myself, I’m skeptical that we have measured the effectiveness of our normal learning environments carefully enough to assert that participation in the protest actions result in less learning, or of less valuable learning, for those protesting or those not.

    The expression of civil disobedience is itself a learning opportunity, and grappling with it as a participant or reflecting on it as one left in the classroom, is to me no less valuable than throwing a ball across a field. Sure the activity is prone to create peer pressure leading to ‘groupthink’, but that is not special to the protests. All students are subject to this very thing every day in all sorts of banal settings too. Not protesting over something is not demonstrably more effective at exposing and confronting groupthink than is protesting over something, even if you are just following the leader.

  2. Just by way of history, in 1998, there were a series of walkouts in high schools protesting the cancellation of multiple high school performances by the Indigo Girls, after they revealed that they were homosexuals. But oddly enough, I don’t recall any after Columbine. After Columbine, rather than focusing on gun control, our high school and student body focused on identifying troubled kids and potentially dangerous groups amongst our student population. We looked for inward solutions, whereas Parkland is looking for external solutions. I prefer our approach.

  3. Serious Question… did any of the Parkland students continually displayed on our televisions actually witness the shootings?

    I’ve googled, and not one of them is an actual witness. They were all in different parts of the school… probably because they are mostly Juniors and Seniors and it is the Freshman hall that was attacked.

    Now, I’m sure it was traumatic, but I don’t compare hearing mortars land while I was behind the fence at air bases in the middle east to the experiences of the infantry that actually went beyond the wire.

    It just smacks of opportunism hearing these political savvy students suck up all the airtime, while I’m not sure one of us cold name an actual victim (except maybe that one girl from a couple of days ago… who notably didn’t get political).

  4. The kids, in these cases, are pawns of the media. I suspect that if thousands of kids walked out protesting abortion, it’d get very little air time and they’d be suspended. You’d certainly not see networks devoting dozens of minutes of time to softball interviews with the kids, with anchors telling them how brave they are.

    But pick a cause the media adores, and the media elevates these kids to nearly mythical status, encouraging the kids to make fools of themselves on television with their simplistic analysis of an extremely complex situation.

    Twitter and social media have prepared them well for this type of bumper sticker debating. But scratch the surface just a little, push back in the slightest, and you’ll see these media heroes’ arguments sputter and falter. Dr. Stephen Pinker covered this well a month or so ago in a panel session.

    And so, the networks keep putting these kids on as if their observations are insightful or unique, and then lobbing softballs simply so the kid can hit it out of the park.

    Shameful on so many levels. And certainly not helping the national dialog or doing any favors for the kids.

    Anytime you make an exception for something–such as whether or not these kids should be punished for missing school–ask yourself if you’d make the exception if another group you didn’t like asked for the same consideration. If the answer is “no”, then you aren’t living an honest life.

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