Don Gifford is the Education Program Consultant for Social Studies for the Kansas State Department of Education .
The events of March 14th created a sense of excitement around civic engagement. The tragedy of the Parkland shooting coupled with other school shootings inspired students to action. So when the very inspirational student leaders of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School called for a national school walk out on March 14th, I could hardly wait to see how it manifested itself here. I happened to be traveling around the state talking with school administrators March 13th thru the 15th. I soon realized that some schools were going to miss a great opportunity to champion civic engagement in their schools.
Some schools planned programs, speakers, and created safe places for the students to assemble. In many schools, concerned students approached adults and administrators and arranged for a school wide 17-25 minute block of time for them to walk out. In other schools, students were told they had the option of walking out or remaining in class. I am sure that many of the programs and discussions were beneficial and constructive but it wasn’t about civic engagement. In most schools, there were absolutely no consequences attached to walking out.
Schools missed the opportunity to make champions out of their kids and instead gave everyone a “participation” trophy. How can there be real engagement without consequence? Those outstanding students, committed to a cause with a purpose and a plan were placed on par with the kids who just wanted to get out of class for 17 minutes.
Schools who gave no consequence for walking out crippled the chances of these students being civically engaged in the future. I believe that engagement is only authentic if it comes with a cost. No cost? No real decision is required. Engagement requires individuals “buying in” to a cause, purpose, or action. Schools deprived kids who walked out of the consequence of a well-considered position and established a precedent for future less popular student actions. They denied students the chance to be a champion, in their own eyes and the eyes of their classmates, by removing the consequence of the choice.
Mary Beth Tinker of the Tinker vs Des Moines Supreme Court case knew in advance that if she, her brother, and others wore those black armbands they would be suspended. They chose to do it anyway. We didn’t give our kids that chance. We didn’t empower our kids to make a choice, we enabled them to have a break in a school day. Every parent can recall disciplining their child for doing something that the parent was secretly proud of. That discipline was necessary for that child’s future success by developing an understanding of choices and consequences. Many of our schools this week missed that chance.