In Response to Mass Student Walkouts, Conservatives Largely Stay Silent
As thousands of students were preparing to walk out of their classrooms Wednesday, kicking off a day of youth demonstrations over school shootings, President Donald Trump tweeted about infrastructure and “unfair trade practices.”
For the rest of the day, the president, known for sharing his thoughts on a wide range of subjects on social media, never acknowledged the walkouts, in which students in every time zone spilled from their classrooms at 10 a.m. to remember the victims of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and to call for new gun laws.
The most visible youth demonstrations in recent history—by some estimates they drew more than 1 million participants—were noted by many celebrities and Democrats like Conn. Sen. Chris Murphy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and led the national news, but they went largely unacknowledged by conservative leaders. Instead, Republicans in Congress turned their attention to the STOP School Violence Act, a bipartisan school safety bill passed by the House of Representatives on the one-month anniversary of the attack. That bill provides resources for security and prevention efforts. It doesn’t include any gun-related measures.
“Today the House took major steps toward securing our schools by passing the STOP School Violence Act,” Trump tweeted Wednesday evening. “We must put the safety of America’s children FIRST by improving training and by giving schools and law enforcement better tools. A tragedy like Parkland can’t happen ever again!”
Even if political leaders disagreed with students’ policy aims, such a large-scale demonstration of student engagement is something to be applauded, said Ian Coon, the communications director for Student Voice, a national youth-led organization that encourages students to seek representation in education and policy discussions.
“Student voice is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Any time you have students coming together and to really have that hands-on civics lesson is so powerful. Civics education is something we learn about in textbooks but never get invited to practice.”
Some conservative school chiefs and governors celebrated students’ actions Wednesday, but most didn’t say anything about the walkouts.
The reluctance of some leaders to acknowledge the demonstrations may relate to the students’ demands, which largely focused on the politically polarizing issue of gun control. The events were organized by Youth Empower, an affiliate of the Women’s March organization, best known for nationwide protests the day after Trump was inaugurated.
At the national level, organizers called for a ban on assault-style weapons, universal background checks for gun sales, and gun violence restraining orders that would allow law enforcement to disarm people who are deemed a threat. The White House school safety plan, released Monday, includes few provisions related to guns. It calls for such restraining orders to be passed at the state level, as Florida recently did.
Throughout the country, students shaped their walkouts around their own demands. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, students mourned school shootings but also drew attention to the more common acts of gun violence in their neighborhoods. Some Chicago students called for an end to school closures that affect communities of color.
“Adults don’t have to agree with the demands that students are making, but to acknowledge that there’s interest on both sides and say, ‘Hey, we see you. We understand that you’re frustrated about this. Let’s have a conversation,’” said Madison Thomas, a Georgetown University student and student organizer for Youth Empower.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was among the most high-profile Republicans to acknowledge the demonstrations that gained momentum from students in his state.
“Today, across the country, in a few minutes, students from across America will be exercising their First Amendment right to speak out about changes that they want on how we regulate our Second Amendment right,” Rubio said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the Parkland shooting just as the walkouts were getting underway.
“The one thing I believe we do have common ground on is that I know of no one, I know of no one in this country who wants to see another community or another state endure such senseless violence,” said Rubio, who supports the STOP School Violence Act.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos “gives a lot of credit to the students who are raising their voices and demanding change,” a spokesperson for the Education Department said Wednesday. “She hears them, and their input will be valuable as she convenes the Federal Commission on School Safety and works to find solutions to keeping all students safe at school.”
Later that evening, DeVos dined with Kyle Kashuv, a Stoneman Douglas student who, unlike most of his peers, has spoken out against new gun restrictions after the shooting.
Kashuv has met with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and made media appearances to support STOP School Violence Act.
But many of his peers—students who’ve organized a national march to call for stricter gun regulations—have said that bill doesn’t go far enough.
The National Rifle Association, identified as a political target by those students, tweeted in favor of the bill Wednesday. The organization also tweeted an image of an AR-15, the same rifle used in the Parkland shooting, with the message “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”
While many leaders didn’t acknowledge the students’ demonstrations, some weren’t hesitant to express opposition.
“It appears that these schoolchildren, innocent schoolchildren, are being used as a tool by [this] left-wing group to further their own agenda,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, told public television network ETV.
Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg, who has been one of the highest profile advocates for gun control, tweeted that McMaster shouldn’t doubt students’ sincerity and that he “can’t wait to see what the history textbooks our generation writes will have to say about people like you.”
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, said he was “totally against” the walkouts and that any school administrator who participated “will be disciplined to the strongest [degree], with every ounce of the law they will be disciplined,” The Colby Echo, the student-run newspaper of Colby College, reported.
The Chicago Republican Party said Wednesday it was preparing to sue the Chicago public school system over the district’s handling of the demonstrations. Although students were not required to participate in the walkouts, the organization contended that some schools were taking “an active role in organizing the rallies and compelling students to participate.”
“A 10-year-old kid isn’t going to have an informed opinion on these political matters, and shouldn’t be expected to have the fortitude to hold a different opinion from everyone else in his or her classroom,” chairman Chris Cleveland said in a statement. “This is political indoctrination, pure and simple.”
The group said it filed a complaint with the district’s inspector general, Nicholas Schuler. Chicago school officials hadn’t confirmed to Education Week the status of the complaint or lawsuit Thursday.
But Illinois’ Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, took a different tone, calling the walkouts an appropriate way to honor the Parkland victims, the Chicago Tribune reported.
State education superintendents also took a variety of approaches, with some lauding the students protesting, others silent, and some issuing guidance on how to handle the walkouts. Idaho's state superintendent, Sherri Ybarra, a Republican, appeared to walk a tightrope of not discouraging students to express themselves but also not encouraging them to protest in the guidance she issued.
“We believe the best place for students during the school day is with their teachers,” Ybarra said in a statement. “However, we recognize students may want to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly. We released guidance for districts last week to help them prepare and use this as a teaching opportunity. We encourage students to work with their schools if they are planning to participate so steps may be taken to ensure their safety.”
Ybarra’s spokesperson said Thursday that Idaho students “coordinated well with their schools and were responsible in exercising their rights of speech and assembly” from what they have heard.
Memorials and Demonstrations
In some cases, students didn’t wait to hear from GOP leaders.
In Phoenix, about 45 students in white T-shirts who walked out of school in protest wound up sitting-in at Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, demanding to speak to him about gun violence in school and chanting “Shame on Ducey,” according to The Arizona Republic.
Six police officers observed as the governor’s education policy adviser listened to the “sometimes loud and frustrated crowd share their fears about being killed at school.” An unnamed Democratic state lawmaker convinced the students to leave peacefully after about two hours, the paper reported.
“Governor @DougDucey appreciates the passion of the students who visited his office today,” a spokesman wrote on his Twitter account, which was linked to a thread of tweets about the governor’s work on school safety.
At some walkout events, students and organizers seemed to steer away from politically polarizing topics, instead framing their walkouts as “memorials” or calls for broader school safety actions.
At Aztec High School in New Mexico, for example, students gathered for 21 minutes of silence to remember 21 recent victims of school shootings, including two classmates who were gunned down in their school in December.
Principal Warman Hall said students are still grieving from the attack and wanted to honor the victims in a way that was not political.
So while many students around the country held signs calling for new gun laws, Aztec students reflected on 21 actions that they can take to improve the world around them, like volunteering with a group or spending time with a student who may need a friend.
Student organizing in response to school shootings and gun violence is expected to continue. On March 24, a group of Stoneman Douglas students has been active in the planning for the March for Our Lives, a national demonstration in Washington, with corresponding events scheduled in every state.
Coon said he hopes students who’ve just started engaging in policy issues will explore other ways to be involved, like serving as student school board members and making requests of educators and lawmakers about a range of issues.
Recent youth activism echoes previous efforts, like student walkouts during the civil rights era, he said.
“I think this is a turning point that has shown a lot of students that they do have a voice that maybe they didn’t recognize previously,” Coon said.