A school board in the beautiful state of Virginia, our neighbor to the north, recently passed a policy to permit students in seventh through 12th grades one excused absence each school year for, as the policy states, “civic engagement activities.”
That means that these young people will be allowed to skip school to participate in marches, sit-ins or trips to Richmond to lobby legislators, according to Fairfax County school board member Ryan McElveen, who introduced the policy.
“I think we’re setting the stage for the rest of the nation with this,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a dawning of a new day in student activism, and school systems everywhere are going to have to be responsive to it.”
Some have responded by objecting that the policy is a sign of rampant liberalism.
It’s actually more like rampant American freedom. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, abolition, temperance and the last decade’s tea party are all part of the protest tradition.
Sure, most of the prominent student-led movements we see today promote causes that we often regard as liberal — gun control and climate change come to mind — but it’s not a given. Virginia students who follow conservative causes will also be allowed to march or attend rallies or visit the state legislature — or cross the county line to make their presence known in Washington, D.C. Maybe they should. It would be educational.
We realize that regardless of politics, some will say that children should be in school. They say that children have no business protesting the issues of the day. They say nobody should be listening to children, who aren’t yet wise enough to offer well-formed opinions.
But some students are wise enough to know that the issues we discuss today will affect them in the future. That’s certainly the case with climate change.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that a group of young people could sue the federal government over its climate change policies, which will certainly affect the world they inherit. Their suit, Juliana v. United States, continues today.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools have no policy about students missing class for “civic engagement activities,” though some students have done so. Missing classes to protest would be considered an unexcused absence. Our teachers are more likely to protest in Raleigh. More power to them.
We’re not suggesting our school system follow Virginia’s example. Providing permission to protest almost feels like co-opting the activity. Some of us are old enough to remember receiving demerits or suspension for protesting during school hours. The punishment was a badge of honor.
In the past few years, state legislatures across the United States have introduced bills to curtail or even criminalize some protests. But the right to protest is inherent in our constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of speech and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
If protest is seen as a leftist activity rather than an American right, then efforts to suppress it will be seen by many as an activity of the right. Silencing the people is not a good look for any political party.
We want our children to grow up to be engaged in politics, to take up the mantel of “we the people.” Protests are the training ground for democratic participation.
Like so many issues of the day, allowing our youth to experience a form of free speech with a long and noble tradition shouldn’t be a matter of partisanship. It’s an American right. Let our children exercise it.