Full disclosure: I don’t like the content of the protests that took place last week. It seems that a lot of people are badly misinformed on guns, and our media is largely to blame. The facts tell a different story.
That being said, I have a problem that applies to protests regardless of their political positions.
They shouldn’t be school-sponsored activities.
But, before that, we should dive into the legal parameters surrounding students protests. I support students right to protest, in part because it’s a right enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but also because the Supreme Court has affirmed their right to do so.
However, the right isn’t universal. Schools can limit speech that is lewd or that promotes illegal behavior. Furthermore, they can limit the scope of protests, as long as the limitations are content-neutral, and constitute “[r]easonable time, place, and manner restrictions . . . if the activity restricted would materially disrupt classwork and school activities.”
This is a surprisingly-reasonable ruling. Protests are allowed to proceed as long as they are non-disruptive, and administrators retain the option to limit them if they become that way.
So, let’s talk about school-sponsored activities.
The most famous of these is the field trip. The school plans the trip, provides personnel, and typically also provides some financing, in the form of purchasing tickets or paying for school buses and drivers to transport the students.
If you don’t go on the trip, your other option is typically study hall, which in theory is just as educational, but in practice often fails to be such.
Some of the protests that took place bear a remarkable resemblance to the field trip. A district representative confirmed that students “were given two options: one, attend the gathering or two, have a study hall.” The schools provided faculty to oversee the protests, and looking at this video from CNN, suggests they may have also contributed financially, providing materials with which to create posters. While I can’t say for certain that the schools themselves are creating the protests, the scope of these suggests that even if they were student-led, they were school-expanded. That is, they were in part planned by the schools.
So, at least at the surface level, the recent protests bear a lot of similarities to the field trip. Of course, that isn’t conclusive proof that these are school-sponsored activities.
What is conclusive is schools’ own policy on what is and what isn’t a school-sponsored activity.
The government of Utah defines a school-sponsored activity as one that:
- Is managed or supervised by the District or public school, or District or public school employee.
- Uses the District or public school’s facilities, equipment, or other school resources.
- Is supported or subsidized, more than inconsequently, by public funds, including the public school’s activity funds or minimum school program dollars.
- Does not include non-curricular clubs specifically authorized . . .
A district in Florida uses remarkably similar language, stating that for non-school sponsored activities, “The [School] Board, however, will not:
- assume any responsibility for the planning, conducting, or evaluating of such activities;’
- provide any funds or other resources;
- allow any member of the District’s staff to assist in the planning, conducting, or evaluation of such an activity during the hours s/he is functioning as a member of the staff.”
On the basis of faculty participation alone, it is hard to make the case that the schools are not sponsoring these activities, especially as shown before, some schools were pretty much shut down in order to allow the protests to occur. Since classes were canceled and those who didn’t wish to participate were sent to study hall, which requires fewer teachers per student to run, the implication is that the remainder, perhaps a majority, of teachers were outside supervising the protest.
So, what’s the problem?
First of all, there’s a conflict of interest. Schools, and especially administrators, have an ethical obligation to minimize disruption in order to maximize learning. After all, learning is why they exist.
I’m okay with some teachers being used to corral protesting students as long as the educational experiences of the non-protesting students are preserved. However, if so many teachers are headed to the protest as to necessitate study hall for the remainder, then the school is promoting disruption, which is in conflict with its preexisting ethical obligation to limit disruption.
Second, protests are, by their nature, not content-neutral.
I understand that it is impossible to be perfectly neutral. However, people of all political leanings send their kids to public school, including Democrats, Republicans, and people who could not care less about politics.
In fact, the student that was suspended for refusing to go to study hall or to the protest, felt, I think reasonably, that if he were to do either he would be taking a political stance, something which he didn’t want to do.
Forced political participation, especially forced partisan political participation in schools is just as odious as forced religious participation, something the Supreme Court has already deemed unconstitutional.
Third, primary and secondary schools have to be careful about indoctrination. “The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. Consequently, they’re especially susceptible to emotional manipulation, as the rational part of the brain that could recognize that manipulation is not yet fully developed.
And here’s the thing about protests: whether or not they work, they’re extremely emotional. They’re not always backed by good evidence. It’s hard to ask questions that challenge a protest during a protest. Even if you were to undermine the protest’s logical foundations, it would probably still continue.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that schools should not sponsor protests because they advance a particular point of view not shared by all, and children and teens don’t yet have all the tools they need to evaluate the situation and make a good decision for themselves. The pressure from the school might be enough to override their preexisting beliefs and cause them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.