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Encouraging Student Activism After Parkland: Balancing Safety and Advocacy

In the wake of the shooting tragedy in Parkland, Fla., a familiar question has emerged: Will anything change?

The pattern is, by now, tragically predictable:  

A shooting happens. There is a period of mourning and remembrance followed by emotional pleas for swift changes to gun laws and other safety measures. But few of these reforms ever occur.

All that may be changing.

Last week, Empower, the youth branch of the Women’s March campaign, called for a national school walkout on March 14. The goal of the event, dubbed #Enough National School Walkout, is to pressure members of Congress to enact policies that actively prevent school gun violence. The group is calling on students, administrators, and teachers nationwide to participate.


Over the weekend, survivors of the Parkland shooting organized a separate event, called March for our Lives, scheduled for March 24. Organizers are encouraging K-12 students to peacefully demonstrate for safe gun policy and mental health reform.

Parkland survivors participated in a smaller-scale demonstration at the Florida state capital on Wednesday, February 22.

As Cameron Katzky, an 11th-grade survivor of last week’s shooting, and one of the event’s organizers, said in an interview with ABC’s This Week: “This isn’t about the GOP. This isn’t about the Democrats. This is about the adults. We feel neglected and at this point, you’re either with us or against us.”

In the coming days and weeks, school leaders from coast to coast will look to strike a balance between encouraging important conversations, while working to uphold rules and policies governing student and community safety.

The sheer intensity of student frustration and fear–as well as the level of attention and organization surrounding these events–is higher than at perhaps any time in recent history.

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A quick glance at social media shows that demonstrators include a mix of students, parents, teachers, and staff. As the temperature on the national conversation surrounding school violence rises, school leaders must identify ways to encourage a healthy dialogue, while keeping students, parents, and others safe.

Giving students and parents a voice

When asked to explain his approach, former district superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins outlined three critical steps that school districts should take:

  1. Set up a listening station. Take steps to track the conversation with parents, students, and staff. Take time to understand different perspectives and points of view, so you can issue thoughtful responses. Make sure you listen to different channels, be it on social media or email or online. And don’t let legitimate parent and student concerns go unanswered.
  2. Build a culture of trust. Students, parents, and staff all need to know and feel that your schools have their back—and that you’re prepared to listen, authentically, to what they have to say. Give everyone in your school community an opportunity to provide feedback or ask questions about the issue or any proposed policy change. Make sure you respond to those concerns in a way that is both timely and responsible.
  3. Listen and act. Listening to your community is an important first step. But if you don’t follow up on that promise with definitive action, you aren’t likely to make much progress. School leaders need to listen with a purpose. That means responding thoughtfully to questions from parents, students, and staff, and making difficult decisions when it comes to dealing with the toughest issues.

As a nation, we’re in the throes of an important–and much-needed–national conversation about school safety. For schools, it’s also an opportunity to encourage students to find and use their voices to affect positive change.

In the wake of Parkland, is your school or district engaged in a community-wide conversation about gun violence and safety? Share your stories in the comments.