My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn’t prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn’t want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to “walk up, not out.” Meaning: “walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence.”
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It’s akin to “Black Lives Matter” becoming “All Lives Matter.” Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
Yesterday my daughter, along with many New Albany Middle School and High School students and thousands of students across the country, participated in a walkout to protest gun violence and to advocate for stronger gun laws. I am enormously proud of my daughter and every young man and young woman who took part in the walkout. Some people worry about our future. I am decidedly not one of them. Based on what I’ve seen of young people today, our future looks far better than our present and our past.
I wish I could say I was as proud of our school’s leaders with respect to this issue. While I did not expect them to endorse or participate in the walkout, I was greatly disappointed in the messaging my children and I heard from them in the days leading up to it.
Earlier this week children and parents were told that, in lieu of a walkout, children should “walk up, not out,” meaning to approach children who may sit alone or who may not otherwise be enmeshed in the social fabric of the learning community. The implicit idea here is that the best way to prevent future violence in school is to engage the sorts of children we have been conditioned to believe are most likely to commit it: the marginalized, the bullied, the different and the introverted.
While I have been greatly pleased with the emphasis NAPLS has placed, from the time my kids were in kindergarten, on anti-bullying efforts, the message being sent in this particular context is abhorrent on a number of levels.
First, it puts the onus on the potential victims of school violence — the students — to prevent future attacks. It tells kids that past acts of violence in schools were the result of the victims not being nicer to their future attackers. This is a perverse, victim-blaming message that we would never tolerate in any other context, yet we are promoting it here?
Second, it further marginalizes and blames those to whom students are asked to “walk up.” Anti-bullying efforts, outreach to others and working to break down the insidiousness that cliques can create is, again, laudable. Emphasizing it in the context of an anti-gun violence campaign is quite the opposite. It tells these children that they are feared. That their alleged isolation — which may or may not be by choice, it should be noted — is a threat. It ignores the social and behavioral science which has studied young, violent offenders (note: their isolation is usually a symptom, not a cause, of underlying violent impulses) and serves to further stigmatize children who may already have a difficult time in school and in life. Or, for that matter, who may be totally happy with how they have structured their social lives and do not WISH to engage with other children, especially on the orders of school administrators.
Finally, it’s an awful message to send for political purposes.
I truly believe that NAPLS administrators do not wish to weigh in politically on hot-button issues such as gun regulation, but the “walk up, not out” position is itself a sharply political one, even if the school does not appreciate it as such. It implicitly tells students that protest and petition of government officials is not appropriate when it comes to addressing gun violence and that, by extension, the specific measures they are seeking — tougher gun laws — are not necessary. In effect, it’s the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” line which is the mantra of the NRA with “so walk up to those people and stop them before they can kill” added on for good measure. Again, I do not believe it was the intent of NAPLS officials to communicate this message, but it is, in fact, the message that is being communicated. You should not be surprised to hear that many of us, and many students, do not feel the same way about the issue.
I appreciate that the job of school administrators is to educate our children. I appreciate that maintaining order is necessary to that goal and that doing so is an immensely difficult task. I am happy my daughter walked out of school yesterday but I will admit that if I were in the shoes of school officials, I would have a lot of anxiety if a bunch of kids simply got up and left the building.
Some things, though, cannot be so carefully controlled. In an effort to assert such control, I feel that NAPLS officials made a terrible misstep which involved terrible and counterproductive messaging that ignored the larger context into which it fell. I would hope that, in the future, NAPLS does better to appreciate the complexities of the issues facing students today and does better in respecting the intellect and maturity of its students who understand that there are important matters on which their voices must be heard outside of the walls of the school.
I’m not sure if I’ll get a response. I’m pretty sure that, either way, I’ll have my name placed in the “pain in the ass” file for future reference. Kinda don’t care.