Teens across the country walked out of class last week to protest the presidential election of Donald Trump.
“There was a lot of anger about a lot of hatred that students are perceiving from this president-elect,” says Sam Pasarow, principal of Berkeley High School in California, where about 1,500 to 2,000 students walked off campus Wednesday morning.
About 200 students staged a similar walkout at West Seattle High School following Tuesday’s election, says Principal Ruth Medsker.
“Their anger and frustration was their ideals didn’t line up with who they perceived got into the government,” she says. “They needed time to process that.”
Pasarow was prepared for a protest since student activism is ingrained into the culture of Berkeley High. But other high school administrators who aren’t used to student activism can consider the following advice to manage these events on school grounds.
1. Understand students’ free speech rights: While students retain freedom of speech within school grounds, that freedom looks different inside of a school, says Lee Rowland, a free speech attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued schools that censor students unconstitutionally.
School administrators may discipline students if their speech is disruptive to the learning environment, Rowland says.
“Students have far more rights to speak their mind in the hallways and the cafeteria, than they do, for example, to hold court in the middle of class or to walk out of class, or to hold a demonstration when they would otherwise be in class.”
School administrators also need to treat all speech equally regardless of viewpoint, she says. “Whether a student happens to be pro-Trump or anti-Trump, they have the same free speech rights, and schools may not discipline students for expressing a particular viewpoint, unless and until that viewpoint crosses the line into bullying or creating a hostile environment for another student.”
2. Ensure students understand the rules and consequences: Rowland suggests school officials support their students’ desire to share, but make it clear to students what the rules are for where that speech will not be disruptive.
Some students at West Seattle High have protested before, Medsker says. And students are familiar with the attendance policies.
While students have the right to peacefully protest, demonstrations are not sanctioned by the district. The students who participated in the walkout were marked absent for their time spent outside of class, she says, and that could have consequences. The district’s policy is students may not be able to make up work for unexcused absences, she says, and teachers write their attendance policies in their syllabuses.
“If something is important to you, then you understand there might be some consequences for it,” she says. “Nobody was suspended, we want our kids in school, learning.”
3. Be aware of students with opposing viewpoints: “We need to make sure that we are making space for all opinions and we as educators are not imposing our beliefs on kids,” says Pasarow, of Berkeley High.
He’d encourage administrators at schools where there is deep division between students to find a way to have safe dialogue – physically, emotionally and cognitively – so students can talk about their beliefs and values without being policed by others.
Although, he says, this is something Berkeley High – a highly liberal community – is working on.
4. Turn protests into a teachable moment: After the walkout at West Seattle High, Medsker invited the students to the school’s theater for a mostly student-led discussion before the students returned to class.
Medsker framed the discussion by explaining the election results were part of a democratic process and as future leaders they can get involved and influence issues they care about.
While Medsker doesn’t condone walkouts, empowering students is important to her. “If we teach our students how to use their knowledge to effectively impact their world, we will all be in a better place.”