They didn’t ask for permission to walk out, so I didn’t give it. But 40 percent of the ideologically diverse, rural Vermont student population at my school walked out anyway.
I asked teachers to note the names of students who left class without permission, and then I stood outside to watch and listen. I applauded when their remarks concluded. For many students and families, the fact that I didn’t grant permission and yet expressed support has been confusing. This is how I’ve explained it, a letter to each student who earned a discipline referral by participating:
Last week, a large segment of our student community engaged in a student-organized “Safety & Solidarity Walkout” with the purpose of “promoting safety in our school and standing in solidarity with victims of school violence.”
The students who spoke delivered a message of sympathy and compassion for the 17 victims of the recent school shooting in Florida, and expressed solidarity with students across the country who are engaging in similar walkouts. The students shared a letter to school administration containing a list of concerns and requests related to school safety and security. The student organizers also implored the student community to be generous with each other, to connect to 17 new people on this day in an effort to build a strong and kind community. The walkout was documented on the school website, and by local print and television news.
I was proud to watch and listen. I was proud to be part of a school community with student activists who organized a public demonstration of dissatisfaction with the status quo, demanding that their school and country become a safer place for all. I was also proud that students were willing to become part of a long tradition of civil-disobedience by non-violently breaking a rule for a cause they believe in.
The student organizers did not come to me to ask permission for this event. They did not ask me to set aside time and space for an assembly in the auditorium. They asked their peers to show their convictions by walking out of class. What this means to me is that the students organized an act of peaceful and courageous civil disobedience, joining a tradition strong with names like Rosa Parks, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. Such citizens chose to courageously break rules to draw attention to a cause they believed in, and they accepted the short-term consequences, including arrest and greater hardship. But in the long-term, they did not accept the status quo. Their courageous acts of peacefully breaking a rule drew attention to their larger cause and helped make the world more safe and just. The students at our school who chose to participate in the walkout are, in my mind, now part of this tradition.
Why didn’t I give official permission to walk out? If I had granted permission for the walkout, it would be impossible for it to be part of this proud tradition of civil disobedience. Nor would students have had to weigh the short-term consequences of breaking a rule with potential long-term impact of being part of “student led change.” My decision was consistent with guidance from the State Secretary of Education, the Vermont Principals’ Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which told principals to “make it clear to students that a walkout protest is an act of civil disobedience and, by definition, a violation of rules. Those infractions will be handled in the standard manner, typically as unexcused absence.”
I know that students and families do not take breaking rules lightly. It is for this reason that, as soon as I knew what was being planned—just two school days prior—I made sure to write to all students to convey that “students who choose to leave classes or school grounds without permission will have their choices documented with a disciplinary referral.” I will not be assigning a detention for this instance of leaving class, but I will be following our procedure of noting it in the log in the student information system and having a conversation with the student. Because of the number of students participating—over 100—we will have group conversations, and I will not be asking the office to process the normal paperwork. What the log will say is this: “On 3.14.18, this student left class and joined peers in a student-organized walkout to ‘promote safety in our school and stand in solidarity with victims of school violence.’ The walkout was peaceful and students returned to class after 17 minutes.”
Another topic I addressed in the letter was whether the teachers who went outside with students were also breaking a rule? My response was, “No, they were asked to be present to help supervise students on school grounds as a duty during their prep period. Teachers across the country are a powerful political force and have their own means of protest, including rule-breaking, which are ways for them to draw attention to a cause. But in this case, the acts of courageous civil disobedience were on the part of the RU students, not the teachers.”
I wish I had written in my letter, as I will tell them when we meet, that their actions are not only part of a tradition of adult actions of non-violent civil disobedience, but youth-led civil disobedience, including: the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama; the protests of students at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, who joined teachers united against standardized testing and budget cuts; the students in Arizona who, in 2011, chained themselves to chairs at a Tucson school board meeting to protest the banning of Mexican-American studies; the youth who have led Black Lives Matter protests for years across the country, including the girls in Chicago who, in 2016 led 1,000 people in peaceful protest, shutting down city streets, in outcry against the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
It is inspiring to reflect on youth activism past and present. The idealism, daring and energy of youth is a life force unlike any other. It’s why my job is so hard sometimes, and why I love it.
Hawkes is a co-principal at Randolph Union Middle/High School in Randolph, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter @ElijahHawkes.