Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Many schools support Student Walkout. And then there's Northbrook...

Snap the Whip, by Winslow Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” Dr. Johnson once quipped.
     This can happen even when the person is not quite a man, or woman, but a teenager. A high school student, say, and the threat isn't the certainty of being strung up in two weeks but the possibility of being gunned down in the indeterminate future.
     Never underestimate the motivational power of the prospect of being killed. Or of having your friends killed.
     We saw it in the Vietnam era, when college students set down their bongo drums and picked up protest signs.
     We saw it this past month — in just 30 days — as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not merely mourn 17 slain classmates, nor limit themselves to piling teddy bears. Instead they pushed past their inert elders and took on our country's insane gun culture and the National Rifle Association.
     And we'll see it Wednesday, with the National Student Walkout, when students at thousands of schools leave class for 17 minutes, one minute for every murdered Parkland student. It a litmus test of the mental agility of school administrators whether they embraced this rare moment of youthful solidarity or fought it.
     As my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick reported, Chicago Public Schools gave tacit approval. “I want to make sure our students have an opportunity to express themselves and engage thoughtfully in this national dialogue," CPS CEO Janice Jackson said.

     Hundreds of area Catholic schools are holding prayer sessions, discussions and protest activities. Romeoville High School, not content with a single protest, scheduled a week's worth of activities under the rubric, "It's Not a Moment, It's a Movement."
     "As educators, one of our most important tasks is providing students with the guidance of learning advocacy skills for developing policy when they become adults," wrote James Mitchem, superintendent of Valley View School District 365U.
     And then there's my leafy suburban paradise.
     I learned of Northbrook's cower-in-place reaction when a childhood friend of my son bolted out his house like it was on fire and buttonholed me. Had I seen the letter District 225 sent out? I had not. He sent it.
     After a few paragraphs of throat-clearing, it gets down to business:
     "Students who elect to participate in the demonstration will be subject to school rules and attendance procedures as outlined in the Student-Parent Handbook. Walking out of a classroom will be considered an unexcused absence for the period of time that the student is out of the classroom."
     Parents howled. My neighbor, Carla Slawson wrote a letter to Glenbrook North principal John Finan:
     "We all want our students to know that there is more to AP Government than getting a "5" on the AP exam ... that what they study can and should have relevance in their lives. This is a unique moment to experience student civic engagement in action. Let's not deny them this, and at the very least, let's not punish them for it."
     My attitude: what's wrong with these people? Shame the protest wasn't a pep rally, because then you could pull everyone of class to have them cheer for Spartan pride. This isn't about education; it's about control.
     Sunday evening, school administrators met with students who, in keeping with the entire movement, helped the grown-ups grope into the murky abyss of their souls and brush their fingers against their missing sense of moral purpose.
     A second letter went out Monday that ... again working through the legalese ... says, in essence: OK, OK, we aren't going to punish you for participating in the walkout, much. The gist:
     "Public schools must remain politically neutral, and it is through Board policies and school rules that we are able to ensure that the rights of all students are recognized and protected."
     Viewing a desire not to be murdered at your desk as a controversial political stand is political - the politics of the NRA. Compare District 225's duck-and-cover with the warm, human letter from Loyola Academy principal Kathryn M. Baal, carefully explaining why some students are taking part, exactly what they would be doing, and why the school supports them:
     "As a gesture of Ignatian solidarity with the Parkland victims, their families, classmates and friends - and a unified call for change in the way our country addresses school safety, gun violence and adolescent mental health - some Loyola Academy students are planning to participate in the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14. ... The faculty and staff of Loyola Academy stand behind our students as they grow in their advocacy of peacebuilding and social justice."
     It is hard to run a school. An enormous bell curve of students must be accommodated. It takes rules. I get that. But if administrators aren't careful, they can get trapped within those rules and forget that rules are not an end in themselves..
     Think of it this way:
     You're allowed to run out of the school when a fellow student starts shooting, right? No disciplinary action there. So why not permit students to also leave (for 17 flippin' minutes!) to join a national effort to kick start the change their parents have failed so woefully to even contemplate? Once again, guns seem to be the default value. You can leave class to flee being shot. But to prevent the next shooting? That's a problem. To some.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 13, 2018


  1. Certain educators seem to think they are running a prison. Props to Loyola Academy for understanding the real mission of education. And props to the colleges ( MIT, Harvard, name just a few) that thumbed their noses at small minded schools who threaten to punish students who walk out by announcing that if a student gets suspended or otherwise disciplined for a walkout like this, it would not be considered any kind of demerit in the college’s eyes

  2. The students have the First Amendment free speech right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. They have the freedom to wait until school is over to hold their protest. There is not a thing the Administration could do about it without violating the rights of the participants.

    1. Yeah, they also have the freedom to conduct their protest in the basement. You're kinda missing the point to protest, Bernie. You have the freedom to try a bit harder to understand and empathize. I would consider using it.

    2. I empathize with the students, and other activists like Father Pfleger, who protest gun violence. But like NFL players kneeling to protest civil rights injustices, without a thoughtful follow through plan of action it ultimately will not produce the desired outcome. My personal philosophy is we have the protection of the Bill of Rights, use them or lose them. And the basement is a no go it's school property. And it would make a good hook for a news story, students defy the Administration and protest anyway.

    3. And football players could take a knee on Monday mornings. But sometimes it makes more sense to avail yourself of your rights when the timing makes a collective statement.

      I applaud the students for voicing their concerns and for giving fair warning of their intentions so as to reduce disruption. I applaud those schools who accommodated them and encouraged civic engagement. (Teachers, staff, and administrators benefit from safer schools as much as students.)

    4. Wow...there are still pep rallies? Mandatory pep rallies? Ours were originally optional and held after school. But attendance was miserable, and the rallies were mocked. So they became mandatory, and were held in the morning. The wannabe-beatniks, who had all read their Orwell, called them "Half-Hour Hates", and derided our terrible teams with snarky remarks.

      Our one protest was in sympathy for a wise-ass who was decked by an athletic coach. The parents sued the school district and the coach, and the teachers threatened to strike if the school didn't back their colleague. A small number of students (including me) walked out and sat down on the front lawn. They were greeted by local police and film crews from all four Chicago TV stations, as high school protests were virtually unheard-of in 1964.

      A day or two later, the assistant principal waved a file folder in my face and warned me that my participation would become an entry in my "permanent record", and I was ordered to serve hours of after-school detention.

      Was it all about control, back in those innocent years? Hell, yeah. And I'd give almost anything to get a peek into that yellowed file, assuming it's still stored somewhere. Nah...that's unlikely. It probably exists in some government agency's database now.

      Bravo to these kids. My only criticism of them is that they waited so long. They should have walked out en masse the very next day.

    5. "Mandatory pep rally" seems a bit of an "compulsory volunteer work."

    6. That's why we called them Half-Hour were supposed to turn the school spirit on and off like a faucet, and do the same thing when you did your "hating on" the "enemy"...Smash New Trier!(or whomever). And yes, having to be there was something of an giant economy size or jumbo shrimp.

    7. In 1969, the court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” as Justice Abe Fortas put it in the majority opinion for Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

  3. Even though I'm 100% in favor of the student protests, it seems disingenuous to claim they are not political. Betcha dollars to doughnuts that some right-wing kids somewhere some time soon will want to walk out in support of gun rights and will whine like crazy if they're not allowed to make as much noise as their opponents.


  4. Count High School District 99 in Downers Grove among the intolerant, closed-minded, repressive districts. Students there who participate will be punished with detentions.

  5. Too often "zero tolerance policies" mean zero brains. It seems like the Northbrook folks are among the unfortunately huge group of school administrators who need to get over themselves.

  6. A piece of this that everyone seems to miss is that if there are consequences for leaving the building during the school-day, the kids are no longer just protesting, they're practicing civil disobedience. Much more exhilarating. When they serve their detentions, they'll be pumped up all over again.

    No matter which way school administrators chose to handle the walkout, the kids are a force to be reckoned with. It's a truly inspiring movement.

    1. The rally was at the football field next to the school building. Not sure what will happen when kids refuse to serve the detentions.

    2. I'd be surprised if anyone refused to serve a detention. They'll more likely wear it as a badge of honor.

  7. The situation offers a temptation to practice Sociology by observing that a suburban school shooting involving a high powered rifle, a relatively rare event, has evoked a politically potent response when the daily carnage of urban handgun violence has not moved the political needle. Could race and social class be factors?


    1. Except that other mass shootings did not result in this massive response at the national level. Race and social class do play a role in the acceptance of shootings in certain Chicago neighborhoods, obviously.

    2. Resist the temptation, Tom. That's too close to the "what about black-on-black violence" nonsense that conservatives use to deflect and derail discussion about gun laws, police shooting and who knows what else.

  8. Boomers owe an apology to the students protesting today. We started out strong on a revolutionary path, recognizing the national errors and attempting new solutions. But over time we got greedy and/or lazy and now racists and Trumpists are undoing whats left of our revolution. I am so proud of the young people picking up the neglected torch. Their actions will be an embarrassment to the fools threatening detention to children protesting being targets. Power to the Young People!

  9. To paraphrase Mark Twain; First, God made the Idiots, this was for practice. Then, God made School Boards.

    School Adminsitration positions always seem to attract tinpot dictator personalities for some reason.

    I work in admin, just a month or so ago I had to remind some teachers that is was highly illegal to reprimand a student who sat for the pledge....


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