He wants more security officers and mental-health screenings! She wants more gun control!
Whenever a school shooting occurs, like the attack that killed 17 people in Florida on Wednesday, conservatives and liberals repeat the same tired talking points. Most of all, they talk about all the great things they want to do to protect America’s kids.
But nothing is working. So I’ve got a different idea, about something that the kids can do to protect themselves.
Go on strike.
That’s right. If America’s high school students staged a nationwide walkout over school shootings, you’d see some real change. Security inside the schools would be beefed up, of course. But Congress would also be forced to take action to prevent people like Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year old Florida gunman, from obtaining a gun in the first place.
That’s what has eluded the country across the last two decades, which have left a long trail of carnage across America’s schools. Since the Columbine massacre of 1999, our schools have suffered over 40 episodes involving what law enforcement authorities call “active shooters.”
And still, nothing. Not even the deaths of 20 elementary-school kids in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 could break the deadlock in Washington and bring meaningful regulations of deadly firearms.
A school strike would. If our nation’s kids refused to come back to the classroom until Congress acted, Congress would act. Whatever it did wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t satisfy every side in our gun debate. But it would surely be better than what our kids have now, which isn’t protecting them at all.
Strikes have happened before, especially during times of political ferment. In the 1930s, most notably, thousands of high school students walked out to protest military training in their schools, cuts to educational funding, and much else.
They also struck in support of teachers like Belvedere, Ill. social-studies instructor Huge Bone, who was fired for engaging his students in debates about the 1932 presidential election: one side represented Herbert Hoover and the other Franklin D. Roosevelt. But that was too much for the local business community, which feared that students might be taking the wrong side—that is, FDR’s.
The next burst of high school strikes took place in the 1960s, triggered by the antiwar and civil rights movements. Here in Philadelphia, 3,500 students walked out of classes in November 1967 to demand the teaching of black history and the right to wear Afro-style clothing. They amassed outside the Board of Education headquarters at 21st Street and the Parkway, where they were confronted by two busloads of police under the direction of then-Commissioner (and future Mayor) Frank Rizzo.
Rizzo reportedly instructed his officers to attack the students’ “black asses.” By the end of the day, 57 people had been arrested and 22 were seriously injured.
But if the students lost that battle, they also won the war. Shortly after the strike, the Philadelphia School District instructed every school to provide “a well-rounded program of African and Afro-American history and culture.” If you want to understand why the city now requires a black history course for all of its students, the 1967 strike is a good place to start.
Into the present, indeed, student strikes and demonstrations have proven an effective political tool. Students in Newark, N.J., walked out for two days in 2014, blockading three local high schools and a major intersection to protest the charter-school reforms promoted (and funded) by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a New Jersey native. A few weeks later, several hundred Philadelphia students struck in support of their teachers’ demand for a better contract.
And it’s not just a city thing, either. That same year, students in Jefferson County, Colo. — a suburb of Denver — walked out to condemn a school board resolution instructing history courses to emphasize “patriotism” over “civil disorder.” The strike led to the recall of three board members, including the author of the resolution. Clearly, the students had already learned what they needed to know about civil disobedience and the ways it can foster change.
Every American kid needs to know that history, too. “We are children,” said one young survivor in Florida, shortly after escaping from the massacre at his high school. “You guys are the adults. Work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”
But the adults have proven that they can’t protect our children from the scourge of school shootings. Only the children can do that, and only if they take action on their own–and right now. We can’t wait any longer.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”