Survivors of the rampage emerged with powerful voices. “Enough is enough!” they shouted to anyone who would listen. “Never again!” Student activists ignited a national movement, identifying March 14, 2018 as a “day of action.” They encouraged schools from across America to participate in a walkout that would serve as both a memorial to those killed, as well as a protest, calling for lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws.
Students from Miller Creek Middle School in San Rafael wanted to join the movement. The principal, several teachers, and about thirty activists met during a lunch break to plan a protest. I sat quietly in the background.
The principal opened the meeting by asking attendees to define activism. “Doing something to create change,” came an instant reply. “Tell me about free speech”, the principal nudged. “What does it mean to you?” A flurry of comments erupted. One girl shouted, “Having the right to say what I believe!” A boy added, “Without penalty or censorship.”
The principal nodded, and then threw a curve ball. “Who can tell me about the 1965 landmark case of Des Moines vs. Tinker?”
Without missing a beat, a girl said, “It’s about a student who wore a black armband to school in protest of the Vietnam War. School authorities created a policy forbidding it. The student wore the armband anyway, and was suspended. The family sued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the school policy violated the student’s First Amendment rights. The student won the case.”
“Good summary,” the principal said. “It’s also important to mention that responsibilities came with the ruling. Free speech and activism cannot infringe on someone else’s rights. For example, protesters can’t disrupt school. Right to free speech doesn’t supersede our right to have a peaceful environment. Also, students have a right not to protest. The principal shifted topics. “Will someone please define ‘truancy’?”
“Not going to school,” a boy said. The principal nodded. “California truancy laws require you to attend school from the first to twelfth grades. This means if students leave campus without permission, there will be consequences.” She paused to let her words sink in before continuing.
“Now, it's time to plan your protest. I find it helpful to begin these type of discussions with a purpose statement.” The principal read aloud: Miller Creek stands in solidarity with the students from Parkland, Florida. “Does the wording work for you?" After unanimous approval, the students were asked to turn to a neighbor and discuss what protesting looks like for Miller Creek. The room erupted in animated chatter. Five minutes later, the principal convened everyone. “Let’s hear your ideas.”
Words tumbled out: “I want to gather on the field for seventeen minutes of silence,” a girl said. “No way!” someone shot back. “Middle Schoolers can’t stay quiet that long!” After the giggles ended, more ideas surfaced. “We must to do something to honor the seventeen victims." "I want to form a giant heart on the field." "I think everyone should wear orange." "We need signs so people know why we’re protesting,” etc.
The principle summarized all discussion threads. Attendees voted on a couple of key issues, using the majority rule. Several unresolved matters were tabled for the next day. I silently wondered how everything would come together with so many loose ends.
On March 14, 2018, I drove to the school to watch the event unfold. The wintery weather set an ominous tone as dark clouds formed overhead. At 10:00, students emerged from classrooms in reverence. Some walked to an outdoor pavilion, choosing not to participate. The majority of students ambled to the field, carrying signs, umbrellas, and determination. The color orange was sprinkled into scarfs, skirts, hoodies, shirts, shoes, signs and socks. Once everyone arrived, student leaders led a march inside the field’s perimeter.
Some kids whispered during the walk; others remained silent, wearing solemn expressions. Friends held hands. Many carried signs. Rain fell, but the protesters kept moving. Seventeen minutes later, students exited the field and returned to their routine.
The event unfolded flawlessly. With guidance from a trusted principal and supportive teachers, the Miller Creek students found a peaceful way to stand in solidarity with students from Parkland, Florida. These young people embraced their constitutional right to express beliefs, whether or not they marched. In the not-too-distant future, these tweens will vote. I believe democracy is safe in their capable hands.