School Climate & Safety Commentary

One of History’s Famous Student Activists: Why I’ll Be Marching With Students

By Mary Beth Tinker — March 20, 2018 4 min read
Mary Beth Tinker, 13, sits with her mother at a Des Moines, Iowa, school board meeting on Dec. 21, 1965, after being suspended for wearing a black arm band to Harding Junior High School.

Young people are often called on to “make a way out of no way.” Now, they are doing that again by turning their grief into a massive mobilization against gun violence and for school safety. Galvanized by the murder of their classmates and teachers, students at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have inspired youths across the country to march, rally, and walk out of school in order to shake U.S. gun violence to its core. And I am right there with them.

With so many teachers, principals, counselors, and nurses grieving, along with students and families, the outpouring of positive action on the part of students is a ray of light. Not since the Black Lives Matter movement have so many taken such strong action against gun violence.

Emergency rooms are filled with young people who pay the price for policies made by adults. I know because I was there with them. For more than 20 years I was a trauma nurse, caring for children and teens. I saw the 12-year-old who was blinded by a gunshot, the 17-year-old shot in the chest, and many others.

Mostly they were kids of color, shot nowhere near school.

Gun violence is also a family affair. One study found that women who were physically abused by a current or former intimate partner were five times as likely to be murdered if the partner owned a firearm. Those women leave behind traumatized children.

I left hospital nursing in 2013 to spend more time encouraging young people to stand up for themselves. I knew it would be good for their physical, mental, and spiritual health, all of which I had learned about in nursing school. I knew encouraging their basic understanding of civics, including their First Amendment rights, could empower and protect them.

Emergency rooms are filled with young people who pay the price for policies made by adults."

When I was a 13-year-old in Des Moines, Iowa, the First Amendment changed my life forever. The year was 1965. My siblings and I had joined a group of students who were wearing black armbands to school. We were mourning the dead in Vietnam and supporting Senator Robert Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. For that, our school administrators suspended five of us.

Like the Florida students, my strong emotions motivated me to take action. I saw children in Vietnam running from burning huts and soldiers in body bags on the news each night. A 7th grader in Ohio recently said to me, “The news makes me so sad, but I don’t know what to do.” I knew what she meant. I felt that way, too.

My role models were the children of the Civil Rights Movement. The Birmingham Children’s Crusade stood up to the KKK in 1963. They were attacked by police dogs, sprayed with heavy fire hoses, and hit with batons by white policemen. Martin Luther King Jr. called their action the “turning point” of the civil rights movement. My parents, who put their faith into action for justice and peace, were also my role models.

I had no idea that our small action of wearing armbands would result in a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, or that it would culminate in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Schools that would decide in favor of certain student rights.

In the 1969 ruling, Justice Abe Fortas wrote that neither “students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But, he argued, students would not be protected by the First Amendment if they “substantially disrupt” school or “impinge upon on the rights of other students.” The meaning of these words in the court’s decision continues to be debated.

I was in 11th grade when the decision was announced. It was a terrible year in Vietnam, and it was a stressful year in my life. I was trying to make friends at a new school and still upset about the war. When we won our case, it was hard for me to be in the spotlight, even though I was glad that future public school students would be able to speak up about the issues that mattered in their lives.

And this is exactly what the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the many others who join them are doing. One day, monuments will be built to them and their #NeverAgain movement. And, there will be monuments for Black Lives Matter, with its #MovementforBlackLives. History will applaud these brave young people.

The late Isidore Starr, the pioneer of law-related education, told me that, like a turtle, we each have to stick our necks out to move forward. This applies to teachers, as well. And many are sticking out their necks by challenging the idea that teachers should be armed. Their campaign #ArmMeWith makes it clear that schools are no place for guns. I’m a fan of their campaign, and I’ll bet most trauma nurses and doctors are, too.

As a nurse, a mother, a member of Moms Demand Action (for Gun Sense in America), and as a students’ rights advocate who actually visited Stoneman Douglas High School a few years ago, I’ll be standing with the students on March 24th. What will you be doing?

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as I Stand With the Students


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