As a Portland Public Schools parent who supports youth activism, I would like to amplify the excellent points made by Falmouth High student Maria Kuhn in her letter to the editor Wednesday about the March 14 ENOUGH National School Walkout, an action proposed and organized by youths as part of the burgeoning student movement demanding changes in our nation’s gun laws. As Ms. Kuhn notes, the voluntary nature of a walkout is erased by schools scheduling an intermission in classes at the appointed time, prompting – if not requiring – all students to participate.

I would take the analysis a step further. While administrators in Portland and some other districts claim to be “allowing” students to participate in the 17-minute National Walkout, they are actually seeking to co-opt the student-led protest by taking charge of it and redefining the event as “an opportunity for all students to express their views on the subject of school safety,” as my 13-year-old daughter’s school principal wrote to parents.

Political activism that is effectively assigned by those in authority loses all its power and meaning. School administrators would show true respect for students’ agency and voice by getting out of teens’ way as they exercise their democratic right to engage in a peaceful protest with specific policy demands. Some districts are managing to do that.

Even schools opting to impose standard penalties for a brief unauthorized absence from class are acting more appropriately than paternalistic administrators who fail to recognize the limits of their authority over students’ independent political activity. Far from providing a lesson in democracy, they are blunting the effectiveness and point of the students’ protest. This is not what democracy looks like.

Mary Murphy


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