When students protest

To speak out against legislative inaction on gun violence, students around the country are mobilizing themselves and their communities to participate in a school walkout on April 19. In the wake of those announcements, two opposing responses have gotten some press attention:

1. Some high schools are threatening to discipline or even suspend students who participate.

2. Many colleges have announced that they will not hold any such disciplinary action against applicants. You can find a list of those colleges here.

It’s not appropriate in this setting for me to advise students whether they should or should not participate. But if you’re considering joining and have concerns over potential admissions ramifications, especially if you don’t see your school listed above or if you’re just too young to know where you’ll be applying to college yet, here are a few considerations that I hope will help you make an informed decision.

1. Remember that you might need to explain yourself later.
The advice that I’m sharing here is rooted in the fact that most colleges’ applications ask if you’ve been disciplined or suspended. If you answer yes, you’ll need to explain yourself. Any college, including those who’ve been outspoken in their support, will still pay close attention to that explanation. They’ll want to know what you did, what the punishment was, how you take responsibility, what you learned, etc. The content of that explanation will make the distinction between a socially conscious teenager trying to create change and one who just made uninformed decisions. Before you decide what you’ll do, think about how you might explain it later.

2. Consider your motivations.
The organizers aren’t doing this because they want an excuse to get out of school. They’re doing this because they’re engaged, scared, and looking to make a difference. No matter where you stand politically or ideologically, this is a significant time in our nation’s history, not just because of an epidemic of gun violence, but also because kids are leading a charge for change. If you decide to participate, make sure you know what you’re standing up for. What are the issues on the table? What are you hoping will happen as a result of the protest? What’s driving you to join and how would you describe that to help someone else better understand that motivation? Progress comes when people understand the change they’re fighting for. And part of making adult decisions means considering the reasons and potential outcomes before you act.

3. Talk to your counselor and teachers.
Whether or not your school supports your right to protest isn’t necessarily reflective of your counselors’ and teachers’ stance. So if you decide to participate, talk to them ahead of time. Explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Show that this is an informed, thoughtful decision. Even if they don’t agree, they can’t argue with the maturity and respect you’re showing. And you just may earn yourself some support they can show through advice, a willingness to help you make up any work you miss, or even a strong letter of recommendation when you apply to college.

4. Focus on the “peaceful” part of peaceful protest.
Every college that has voiced their support has done so for “peaceful protests.” Don’t expect that support to stand if your action goes outside that definition. The organized protests getting all the attention aren’t calling for anything that could get you in legal trouble. But if that changes while you’re participating, remember that most colleges will not consider “Everyone else was doing it” a legitimate excuse. Make good decisions before and during any action you take.

5. Remember that change won’t come overnight.
If you’re suspended for participating in such a demonstration, and if you explain it by claiming that you are passionate about this issue, but you never participate in any further efforts to create that change, your expressed commitment falls a little short. A problem this big never gets solved overnight, and there are lots of ways you could continue to be involved long after April 19. You can fundraise. You can assist with voter registration. You can volunteer for like-minded organizations. If it’s important enough to you to leave school and protest in the streets, is it also important enough to commit ongoing time and energy? It’s not for me to answer that question. But it’s worth considering before you go down this road.