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Advice from a 1960s student protester: Support kids now who walk out over guns

Students at Taconic High School Pittsfield, Massachusetts walked out of class on Wednesday to rally for stronger gun laws. (Gillian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle via AP)

Seeing high school students peacefully make their voices heard in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting transported me back to May 1970, when I was a 16-year-old junior at Evanston Township High School.

The Vietnam War was ramping up again, and the Kent State shootings had just shocked the nation.

OPINION

Kent State set something off for me and many of my classmates. If students could be shot and killed while protesting in Ohio, what was stopping someone from doing the same to us? Many of us still were reeling from the violent deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Like others approaching draft age, I also had nightmares about what might happen if I ended up in Vietnam.

Fearing for your own safety can be a wake-up call. We knew we needed to speak out. We wanted to rise up against violence at home and overseas.

So we decided to organize a peaceful protest. We would stage a school walkout and join a demonstration on the Northwestern University campus. This plan did not sit well with everyone – what if we got suspended or something damaging to our future prospects was put in our school records?

But when the time came, our urge to push back against the slaughter of innocent people was stronger than our fears. I joined hundreds of other students who left the school and peacefully marched past brick ranch houses and duplexes to Northwestern, where protesting college students were delighted to see their younger allies.

When we got back to school the next day, we heard surprising news: We weren’t in trouble! The high school let us know our voices were being heard, and we were welcomed back to school. Once back in class, we had new topics to discuss and an energy to learn more and change the world for the better.

That day ended up being an essential part of our educational experience, and we better respected our school for trusting us. Our protest was a partial antidote to violence and fear, not unlike the fear students across the country are feeling now in reaction to Parkland and all-too-frequent school shootings nationwide.

I hope that Illinois school administrators today will follow this example and allow their own students to experience the First Amendment in action.

Schools certainly have the right to discipline students for missing class without cause, but administrators are not required rigidly to require attendance. Many students are allowed to be absent for religious holidays, college visits or important life events such as funerals. Participation in a once-in-a-decade protest should be seen as what it is: an educational field trip.

Missing a few hours of class is worth the real-world educational experience of a peaceful protest and experiencing the community it builds. High school students have a right to be heard. Dissent is an American tradition.

Benjamin S. Wolf, a lawyer, is the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

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