The news headlines were all about the national walk out yesterday. Students in schools cross the nation walked out of school in protest of the latest mass school shooting, urging politicians and other responsible adults to do something about the epidemic of school shootings. Judging by my Facebook feed, most adults supported and even applauded them in expressing their concern to the adults in their world.
It is our responsibility to protect our children. We need to take this seriously and do all that we can to protect them from this very modern danger. It is a modern danger by the way. Never before 1966 was there an indiscriminate mass shooting of students on a school campus in the history of the United States, and indiscriminate mass school shootings have ramped up each decade since then, shooting into the double digits in the 1980’s and beyond. (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US.)
As if this trend isn’t disturbing enough, we can see another trend in the age of the perpetrators. From the 1980’s on, the perpetrators have been predominantly teenagers and young twenty somethings. The perpetrators have been as young as middle school age, and they are almost all boys and young men. What is going on with our boys and young men is a question we need to ask and answer. (See The Lost Boys with Guns.)
Meanwhile, I add my voice to the chorus of adults applauding our youth around the country for walking out in a show of unified protest and demand for the adults to make changes that will protect them from future attacks from indiscriminate mass shootings, but it isn’t enough.
Granted, protests are a last resort for people who don’t have the power, or, perhaps, feel they don’t have the power, to effect change directly. It’s an attempt to prick the conscience of the people who do have the power to effect the change that is needed. At least that is the perception.
Go ahead and protest. It raises social consciousness. It demonstrates a necessary urgency. It forces the issue top of mind and demands that we take the issue seriously. But it isn’t enough. Young people have much more power than they might think, but it will take much more effort, sustained effort, and we, as adults, need to help them in every way we can. Their lives may depend on it!
What am I talking about?
Well, let’s start with bullying. The perpetrators are mostly young men and boys who have been pushed to the margins in the school halls, cafeterias and playgrounds. They usually speak about being bullied, not fitting in and being demeaned. Every student in the nation has the power to contribute her and her efforts to a solution.
Go ahead and walk out, but don’t stop there; stand up! Stand up to bullying. bullying should not be tolerated, and turned a blind eye to it is tolerating it. We, as adults, need to get serious about equipping our children to stand up to bullying.
In my experience, children at the school my children attended were taught not to tattle tale. When a bully instigated an altercation and triggered a response, the bullied child, who finally had enough and tried to stand up and fight back was often the one who received the punishment. At best they were both punished – as if the person trying to defend his dignity and self-esteem is on the same level as the bully.
Maybe it was days, or weeks, or months, or years of bullying that led to that response. I have seen it dozens of times. I used to be a hearing officer at school expulsion hearings. I have seen the scenario play out time and again.
The bully, of course, may have his own issues. We can’t demonize all bullies. The very reason they have resorted to bullying suggests that something else, much deeper and troublesome in their lives, is going on.
But bullying must be shown for the demon it is. Not the bully, but the bullying. We have to do better as adults to foster an environment in which to be called a bully is worse than being bullied. We have to foster an environment in which it is safe to talk about being bullied. We have to foster an environment in which students feel empowered to stand up to bullying and to call it out.
Walking out is a way for students to take some responsibility and to exercise some leverage that students have, such as it is, to influence a positive change in our society, but a much more effective, long term and responsible action to go along with a walk out is to stand up to bullying wherever and whenever it occurs.
In truth, though, adults need to set the standards and foster an environment in which bullying is not tolerated and is discouraged. Bullying, itself, needs to be marginalized, and bullies need to be embraced and listed to just as the bullied need to be embraced and listened to. We need to foster an environment of mutual respect for the intrinsic value of all people – and we need to be the ones to model it for our children.
If we are going to applaud our children for walking out, we need to stand up and response to their cries for help. A protest is easy. The real work is in what we do next. We can and should pass effective, common sense gun laws (and enforce them), but that is only a bandaid. It doesn’t address the real problem.
We can’t afford to wait around for more, or better, or tougher or more effective gun laws. Even if we did pass all of them, they wouldn’t address the real problem.
The fact is, too, that most us can only protest and speak out about gun laws, but we can’t do anything other than that. We don’t have the power to change the legislation by our own, individual efforts. We do have the power to change how we relate to other people. We could start right now by being civil to each other on social media.
Everyone of us can respect other people, including those with whom we disagree. We can do that regardless of age, or station in life or the power to influence decision-making that might lead to legislative changes. We can reach out to the marginalized and engage them. We can stop gossiping about others, driving wedges between people and sowing seeds of distrust. We can show compassion, lend a helping hand, say a kind word….
There are many things that we can and should be doing. Protesting is an attempt to appeal to those in power to do the things we can’t do, but we have the power to influence people in the social circles in which we walk every day. Adults need to model that for children and empower children to do the same.
The question isn’t whether to walk out or to stand up. These aren’t mutually exclusive actions. I fear, though, that we may be tempted to do the easy thing and feel like we have done all we can do. There is much more work to do, and that work is much more powerful and more sustaining in the end.
After we are done applauding our children for walking out, encourage them to stand up. As we do that, however, we need to be resolved to stand up ourselves and to begin to change they way we relate to each other. Our children are not likely to buy into something that we don’t take seriously enough to demonstrate ourselves.