Student walkout: Protest has a price

Across Maryland and throughout much of the country, thousands of students walked out of class this morning to honor the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., exactly one month ago. At some venues, entire student bodies massed, 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.” In others, there were assemblies or in-class activities meant to raise many of the same issues.

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. An alternative learning “module” was provided instead. And while this might not be our preferred call (a protest accommodated by the school and perhaps enriched by teacher involvement strikes us as the most sensible choice under the circumstances), this is not an unreasonable choice either.

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? Good. 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. Closer to home, when Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine destroyed draft files to protest the Vietnam War, he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. You want to make a meaningful statement? Sometimes, there is a price to be paid. These are not heroes despite their prosecutions, they are heroes because of them.

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. Most people aren’t up to such a challenge. Some remarkable individuals are. As we’ve noted before, the outspoken student leaders from Parkland seem to have that fire and urgency. Do their peers from Hereford or Severna Park or Polytechnic, Mount Hebron or Westminster have the same?

Chances are, this wasn’t a political awakening. Those are rare. More likely, it was a fad. Selfies were taken and a lot of Instagram posts came out of it. Yet it could turn out to be more. We hope it does. The grownups have surely failed to do much about the problem. As if to illustrate this, a Northern California teacher with weapons training accidentally fired his gun in a classroom Tuesday, slightly injuring a student during a safety lesson. He’s been put on administrative leave. 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?

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