Our View: Student Activism
OpinionOur View

Our View: Student Activism

Schools should be happy that youths are applying classroom lessons to the real world.

It’s no coincidence that this week’s AJT flows from coverage of student activism on gun violence into preparations for Passover.

Many commentators have noted a connection between modern Jewish activism and the formation of Jewish peoplehood in our struggle to escape Egyptian slavery and reach the Promised Land (just as there’s a connection to modern Zionism, addressed by the Center for Israel Education’s Rich Walter).

So it made sense for day schools such as Atlanta Jewish Academy and the Weber School to support their students in walking out for 17 minutes March 14 in memory of the 17 people slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month earlier. Whether they were marking the traditional Jewish mourning period or calling for legal changes to make such school slaughters less likely, students who walked out were practicing what their teachers at school and synagogue have preached.

Students who chose not to just go along with the crowd — whether they shifted the time of the demonstration, as AJA did, to present a clear break from national adult activists who are too comfortable with anti-Semites, or separated the mourning from a blanket call for new gun laws, as AJA sophomore Eliana Goldin did, or simply decided not to walk out with their peers because it didn’t feel right — deserve the same praise as long as they made thoughtful decisions like the adults they are becoming (and often are scolding).

Cartoon by Steve Sack, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, MN

Just as their controlled environments help Jewish day schools and other private schools keep their students safe, as we noted after the Parkland shooting, so they make it easier to support such moments of student activism. The physical openness and sprawl that make many public schools more vulnerable also complicated those schools’ handling of the student walkouts, and many of our public school leaders, particularly in Cobb County, didn’t rise to the occasion any better than their legislative peers have met the challenge of school security.

School officials couldn’t go along with letting teens by the hundreds or thousands walk off campus, but they could have done what many administrators did around the nation and worked with student organizers to take the demonstrations to football stadiums or other controlled locations where students could safely mourn and make any political statements.

There was no need for threats of excessive punishment, such as three days of suspension or Saturday school sessions, for 17 minutes of activism, although neither students nor their parents should have objected to minor, proportionate punishment (an hour of detention, for example) for the walkout. A protest means more if you’re willing to pay a price for your actions.

Speaking of paying a price, much has been made of the potential of young voters to punish lawmakers at the polls this year for inaction on gun violence, but the same day that students walked out, the U.S. House voted 407-10 to pass the STOP School Violence Act. We’re disappointed that Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Lithonia) was one of the 10 no votes.

The measure is not a cure-all, but the $50 million a year it would spend on security training, assessments and protective measures represents a positive step toward making schools safer without getting bogged down in details about guns.

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