I was a high school student at the time of the Columbine shooting, and I vividly recall the feelings of shock and sadness I experienced in the days following the tragedy. Given the powerlessness I felt as a teenager in the aftermath of Columbine, I am in awe of the strength, maturity, and determination exhibited by students across the country in the weeks following the Parkland shooting. The school walkouts on Wednesday were an enormous success by any measure. Nearly 1 million students exercised their freedom of speech during more than 3,000 registered demonstrations across the country. The attention-grabbing student-led action called to mind the protests led by Diane Nash, John Lewis, Barbara Johns and so many others during the Civil Rights Movement. But these actions are distinct, and their differences underscore a key truth: #NeverAgain is a powerful and inspiring movement; but it is a privileged movement.
The risks that students took to participate in Wednesday’s walkouts were not equal. Some schools promised to discipline student protesters, while others vowed support. Hundreds of colleges and universities made clear that they would not penalize applicants for disciplinary action stemming from involvement in the protest. But that promise did not protect students of color who risked more than just entry to an elite institution of higher learning. These students had to weigh walking out of class against the all-too-familiar threat of long-term exclusion from school, arrest, and even bodily harm.
Fear of disproportionate discipline — or worse — for participating in peaceful protests is neither unwarranted nor unprecedented. According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, Black students are 3.8 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension and 2.2 times more likely to be arrested in school than their white counterparts. It stands to reason that the disciplinary reaction to the student protest movement will reflect the day-to-day racial disparities in school discipline. This reality can effectively silence the very students most likely to be affected by gun violence.
Even in schools that did not threaten disciplinary retaliation, not all students of color felt safe protesting. Before the walkout, the New York City Department of Education assured students who chose to participate in demonstrations that they would “not face consequences beyond a notation in their student attendance record and a conversation with an administrator.” But some City schools did not support the walkout. At the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx, where a student was stabbed to death earlier in the school year, teachers discouraged students from demonstrating. Throughout the day, police vehicles circled the school. In Chicago, police handcuffed a 16-year-old Black student protester for allegedly disrupting traffic and reckless conduct. She was walking in a busy street with a large group of students when she was singled out for arrest and taken into police custody.
As a former public defender in the Bronx, I witnessed firsthand the overrepresentation of students of color funneled through the criminal justice system for incidents that occurred on or near school grounds. Racial disparities in the meting out of punishment to young people perceived to be unruly is unsurprising, but it is no less disturbing. All students deserve the opportunity to speak out without fear of reproach or retribution.
Almost twenty years after Columbine, I am the mother of a child who was in a New York City school on the day of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My daughter is too young to understand the enormity of what happened that day. And she is too young to have participated in the walkout. But she is lucky to attend a school where administrators not only eschewed disciplinary action for participation in the day’s events, but actively supported the student-led movement.
Not all students are so fortunate. As we continue to laud and support student protesters for their civic engagement, we must acknowledge their privilege to do so with few or no consequences. Moving forward, we must equally protect students of color, whose voices are too often silenced by the threat of retribution for dissention.
Marne Lenox is an Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization.