I’m not a fan of student walk outs. And I hope it’s not just because I’m getting old. I’m confident that there is reason and substance behind my belief that students send a much stronger message when they protest on their own time. It shows that the cause is important enough for them to give up something. Past experience tells me that a few quick chats with students who walk out of school reveal a predictable truth: a few of them, often the organizers, are able to articulate what they are protesting and why. They are facile with facts and can point to specific policies that cause them concern. Most, however, struggle to share anything more than a few talking points that, when pressed, they are unable to explain or defend. But this election has been anything but predictable so it could be the case that far more students will be solid on exactly what and why they are protesting.
Before the accusations of student bashing start, let’s be clear. I spent a decade working in schools. I am a huge supporter of student advocacy and I’ve seen schools and even communities make actual policy changes in direct response to student voice. It’s an awesome thing to see.
But walking out of school over the inauguration is different. It’s amorphous and it’s hard to define what they wish to achieve. Mayor Elorza can’t make the inauguration not happen. And neither can Governor Raimondo or the General Assembly. Holding the president’s feet to the fire on equity and civil rights will be the job of all of us but protesting the president’s inauguration doesn’t really move the ball. But it may have a dramatic emotional impact. It can feel very empowering to march together, in a group, and speak truth to power. I get it. But that should happen outside of school hours; most protests do.
Central High School senior Annavonh Phasouvor, who has written here at Good School Hunting before, explained it to me this way:
I personally have chosen not to walk out but I don’t disagree with the reason why so many students are so driven to participate. Our voices matter. We matter as individuals. No matter what people say, what matters is that we all come together as a unified front. As a community, this will help us grow as one. Although some may think this walkout may be a waste of time, it is not to us, the students. Ever since Donald Trump was elected, the strength of our community has grown tremendously. I am proud to be part of such a diverse community where we can peacefully come together to stand up for what we believe. We have value and no one can or ever will limit us.
In the past I’ve been very critical of adults playing major roles behind the scenes in student walk outs. Last year students in Boston walked out over proposed budget cuts and it was clear to all who cared to look that grown ups were pulling the strings in private as well as on social media. The grown ups denied it but that didn’t change the fact that it was true.
In the case of Providence, that does not seem to be the case. The Providence Student Union and Youth in Action — while certainly overseen by adults — have a long track record of student driven advocacy at the local level. They put in many hours after school and on weekends and community leaders often look to them for the youth perspective on issues of the day.
According to GoLocalProv, the Providence Student Union posted the following to Facebook:
On Friday, January 20 at [11:08] AM, students from Providence high schools will walkout in protest against policies under the Trump administration and gather on the steps of the RI State House in solidarity for student and community rights.
*** If we all do it together, #TheyCantStopUs ***
If you want to make a change, NOW IS THE TIME. JOIN US IN THIS STAND!
Youth voices are powerful, and we need to show it. We didn’t get to vote, we didn’t have a choice in electing Trump, but it’s time to STAND UP and make ourselves heard.
WALK OUT AT [11:08] AM ON JANUARY 20!
* Note: This event is student-led. Youth In Action, Inc. and Providence Student Union are hosting this event to protect the walkout’s individual student leaders.
Classical High School has now muddied the waters on the whole adult involvement thing. By making the decision to move midterms from Friday to Monday for those who choose to walk out, adults are now involved. Some would even say complicit. Life is going to be full of hard choices with consequences and rescheduling exams so that students can walk out to protest President Trump seems like a lapse in judgement. There is no doubt that school officials want to do right by kids; I’d just argue that they may have erred on this one.
And if God forbid something happens to a student during school hours while in route from their school to the statehouse, questions of liability will become front and center very quickly. PPSD is responsible for the kids til the dismissal bell and that means that today after [11:08], they will be responsible for kids who are neither supervised nor inside their buildings. So putting aside opinions about the planned protest, school and city leadership and law enforcement have to focus on keeping kids safe.
Superintendent Maher is in a tough spot and I doubt anyone envies him today. Neither he nor his team has the capacity to block hundreds of students from walking out but he has made his disapproval clear. He does not support the walk-out and has said so not only to students, staff and the media but also to parents through a recorded phone message. He has asked parents to partner with him in encouraging their children to stay in school and find ways to protest on their own time, outside of school hours.
The message sent via phone reads as follows:
This is Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools. The school district has learned of a planned student walkout this Friday, January 20, to protest the presidential inauguration. At Providence Public Schools, your child’s education and safety are our primary concerns. As such, the school district does not support this walkout. While we respect our students’ right to express their opinions, we believe that they should do so at a time that does not disrupt their school day.
We ask that you reinforce this message when you talk with your child about his or her plans for Inauguration Day. Please tell your student to stay in school on Friday.
About the recorded message, he had this to say:
Providence Public School District views parents as key partners in student success. The telephone message is intended to remind parents that their voice matters in influencing their children’s behavior.
We’ll have to wait and see the numbers but it may turn out that the bravest students in Providence today are the ones who choose not to walk out. We can only hope that the protest is one of peace and respect, that all students stay safe while marching, and that we don’t find out later that any adult organizations played a role in the planning or execution of this protest.
It’s a big day in America today, for better or worse. We need to remind our children and our students that no matter how they feel about the election results, President Obama is right when he promises that the sun will come up tomorrow.
Stay safe kids.