What to Do When Students Protest

What to Do When Students Protest

Research shows that the young people of Gen Z are more politically engaged than older generations, and much more likely to be active politically, say by attending a march or rally in the last year as compared even to the Millennials in the generation ahead of them. 

At the same time, young people are more likely to be skeptical of electoral politics as a route to solving the issues that are important to them. As has been well-established, the incidence of anxiety and depression is also ever increasing for students who worry about what they see as existential threats, things like school shootings, or on a larger scale, climate change.

It is not surprising then that we frequently see direct student action — protests — taking place when it comes to these big national issues. 

Just this week, thousands of students across more than 90 middle and high schools in Virginia staged walkouts protesting changes to policies regarding transgender students made by the state’s governor, Glenn Youngkin.

Back in May, students in Texas walked out of classes to protest gun violence. 

In March, students in Florida participated in a “massive” walkout to protest what opponents of the legislation called the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”

Student action isn’t confined to these big issues either. Students at Chicago’s Lindblom Math & Science Academy recently walked out to protest the letting go of an assistant principal when the top leadership at the school changed. 

There’s every reason to believe that students will continue to engage in this kind of direct action, which means the grown-ups in charge will respond. But what’s the right way to respond? Some thoughts:

1. Respect student rights. (And help students understand their rights.)

The vast majority of students engaging in these protests are not of legal adult age, but you don’t have to be 18 to be protected by the First Amendment. Students are allowed to protest freely off campus the same as anyone else without fear of discipline.

Protests on school grounds or in the midst of school-related activities are more complicated. Courts have ruled that schools have an interest in preventing “disruption” and can take actions consistent with that goal.

Engaging in protest, no matter how noble the cause may be, is also not a de facto excuse for absence. Courts have said that schools have the right to enforce their own policies as long as they do so fairly and without discriminating. 

2. Remember that not all students believe the same things.

While research indicates that younger people are more likely to identify with liberal or progressive views, as with any other age cohort, there is a range of views among young people regarding every issue under the sun. Remember to not assume an individual student’s beliefs just because of the opinion of the majority.

3. Take student protests seriously by listening to them and engaging with them on the issues.

Regardless of one’s stance on the underlying issues, organizing and participating in a protest demonstrates the kind of agency and self-efficacy one would hope students are developing through their education. 

For sure, young people doing this can sometimes make us uncomfortable. During the most recent round of protests in Virginia, I saw many messages on social media stating that students should be shown “how the real world works” by cracking down on them through severe punishment, or even torpedoing their college applications. 

It should go without saying how wrong, shortsighted and counterproductive this kind of response would be. Students as young as middle school are protesting because they have lost faith that the adult world is capable of addressing their needs. To crack down in an authoritarian manner only reinforces that belief.

Direct action is serious business and should be taken seriously by engaging with students on the issues. 

It is a cliche to say that these sorts of things are teaching moments, but it’s true.They’re also learning moments for the adults who are supposed to be in charge.