Teaching students how to dissent is part of democracy

In scenes unprecedented in previous school shootings, the past few weeks have been marked by students taking to the streets, to the media, to corporations and elected officials in protest over gun practices and policies.

Responses to these teens have been mixed. Some have celebrated their passion. Some concluded that the students are immature and don’t yet fully grasp longstanding issues with the Second Amendment. Some questioned the voices and perspectives of the teens. Still others see the protests as an inappropriate use of time that might be better spent reaching out to loner students who may be prone to future acts of violence.

Some schools have even threatened to take disciplinary action against students for engaging in protests during school hours. This has prompted universities like my own to promise students that disciplinary actions that stem from peaceful protest will not be held against them when they seek college admission.

What schools should do

Immediately after the Parkland shootings, some scholars urged society to consider “the nature of education and schooling in American society.” Indeed, we need an educational response to the shootings. This response should account for the purposes of our schools within American democracy and offer students opportunities to learn, even in the face of tragedy. As the author of a new book on how schools can get students to become more civically engaged, and a 2012 book on how schools can cultivate the skills necessary for political dissent, I contend that the student protesters that have emerged in the wake of the Parkland shooting offer insight into a worthwhile response.

While seldom acknowledged, students have a right to engage in political dissent and, more significantly, the entitlement to an education that nurtures their ability to do so. In the 1969 landmark Tinker case, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But, the court held, it is reasonable to limit protest activities that interfere with the opportunity for others to learn. The right to dissent is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but rather is a civil right that arises out of how we understand good citizenship and thriving democracy. Dissent allows for a proliferation of views on the good life. It sparks conversation and ignites change to better align practices and policies with the wishes and needs of the people. It keeps democracy vibrant.

Dissent is an American tradition

Often, we think of student protest as a type of public self-expression that should not be hindered as long as it meets certain criteria, like not preventing other children from learning. In America, our democracy requires the consent of the governed. Our Declaration of Independence even says that when we are not in agreement or when our well-being is in jeopardy, we have a duty to speak up. It’s the American way and has been from the time the nation began.