Letter to the faculty re. national student walkouts March 14 and April 20, 2018 |
February 26, 2018 |
As you are probably aware, plans are underway for several events that could impact your classes, including two planned national student walkouts responding to gun violence in schools, including the recent incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, that took the lives of 14 students and three teachers.
The first of these walkouts is scheduled for Wednesday, March 14. Its organizers, Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, are “calling for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and allies to take part in a #NationalSchoolWalkout for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. across every time zone” as a call to Congress and state legislatures to take meaningful action to prevent gun violence. (Learn more about the March 14 action here.)
A second walkout, this one organized by high school students led by Lane Murdoch, a 15-year-old sophomore in Ridgefield, Connecticut, is scheduled for Friday, April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings that killed 12 students and one teacher in 1999. The organizers write: “National Student Walkout is a nationwide protest of our leaders’ failure to pass laws that protect us from gun violence. After the horrific massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, young Americans are taking matters into their own hands. Together, we will send a message that we won’t tolerate any more inaction on this issue.” (Learn more about the April 20 action here and here.)
As many of you who are parents already know, students at several local schools have announced their plans to participate in the March 14 walkout, including students at Loy Norrix, Mattawan, and Portage Central High Schools and Milwood Middle School. Others are likely to join as well.
I am writing today because WMU students may also choose to participate in the walkouts, which could impact your classes if you teach on those days.
Faculty are fully within their rights to hold students to attendance policies set out in their course syllabi, including if the reason for the absence is to participate in constitutionally protected activity like the walkouts. Faculty members are also within their rights if they choose to waive attendance penalties to allow students to participate in these actions without consequence. Should a walkout occur at WMU, it is up to each faculty member to decide whether to penalize students for missing class if they choose to participate in a walkout. Obviously, any penalties should be consistent with the existing attendance policy.
However, students may not be disciplined or penalized, by faculty or by the institution, for expressing political views or participating in a peaceful protest. This is to say that there may be a penalty for a missed class meeting but not for any lawful political activities the student engages in while absent from class.
As always, and regardless of how you decide to proceed in the event of a student walkout, the WMU-AAUP is here to provide support and information to the faculty and to protect your rights. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with your questions.
Those are the facts. I hope you find them helpful.
But there is of course a lot more to all of this than the facts about policies governing attendance and about laws protecting students’ rights to free expression.
As an intellectually diverse faculty, we bring a variety of viewpoints and perspectives to how we conduct ourselves as professors and are not likely to be of one mind when it comes to how we choose to respond when students participate in political actions.
With that understanding, I offer my perspective on the upcoming walkouts. I am writing as a faculty member concerned about the safety of the students in our classrooms, not to mention our own safety and that of all members of our campus community. But I will note that this perspective is necessarily informed by my experience as the president of the WMU-AAUP Chapter, which is part of a national organization whose executive board and national council I sit on and which is active in the effort to keep firearms off college campuses.
I will support any and all WMU students who choose to participate in any kind of constitutionally protected action to protest the epidemic of gun violence on school campuses.
Yes, it is definitely inconvenient and frustrating when a class meeting is interrupted. It may make it difficult or impossible to cover important course material, and that affects all students, including those who choose not to walk out. I do understand that and feel it myself on occasions when I lose class time.
But we are poised at a unique cultural and historical moment, which young people around the country and in our own community have courageously seized. Some of these young leaders experienced the unimaginable horror of watching their friends, classmates, and teachers die two weeks ago. Others around the country have joined their movement. Something important is happening, something more important than what I have planned for my classes on any given day.
The students are taking the lead, but we are all in this together. In my role as chapter president, I have spoken with many of you over the years about concerns for your safety and that of your students and about the proliferation of dangerous weapons in our community and the possibility that they could one day be allowed on campus. I have listened to your stories about odd and in some cases alarming interactions you have experienced on campus and heard you talk about your fears about whether you will be able to get your students out of your classroom safely should it ever come to that.
Every one of these stories is unique, but they are all variations on a theme. And they are all heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because as we watch yet another school shooting and its aftermath unfold, we know that there is no rhyme or reason to any of it, no sense to be made, and no way to know whether and when our students might be in danger, or whether and when we might be in danger ourselves. Heartbreaking because every single colleague I have ever had a conversation like this with has made it clear that they would take a bullet for their students if they had to. Every single one of you.
In our determination to protect our students, we are no different from our colleagues across the nation, K-12 teachers and university professors, tenured faculty and part-timers alike. We share what many of us have come to understand as an almost sacred responsibility that comes with the job: to protect students, potentially even with our lives.
But we shouldn’t have to do that.
It is outrageous and unconscionable that we should be expected to die on the job and to be responsible for the literal lives of our students. It is equally unconscionable and outrageous that there are some in our communities who believe that we should also be responsible for taking the lives of students or others on campus who might pose a threat, people who believe that killing should be part of our job
And yet here we are.
Many of us got into this line of work because we are inspired to work with young people to help them fulfill their potential and become as fully actualized as human beings as they possibly can. This is where I find the deepest satisfaction in my work as a professor, and I know a lot of you feel the same way. I love linguistics a lot, but even more I love watching students thrive and mature into their best selves. When I am able to help them with that, I feel that I am honoring one of the most important purposes of my work as a professor.
There is a lot more I could say about all this, but I think I have said enough to try to explain why I will excuse my students from their academic responsibilities on March 14 and April 20, 2018, and on any other day if they choose to participate in actions and take a stand for something they believe passionately about.
This is a pivotal moment in their lives and in our culture. We are engaged in a new civil rights movement that includes stands against racially motivated police violence, against discrimination and violence against people of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, and women, and now the #NeverAgain movement launched by a group of courageous teenagers who are inspiring other young people across the nation. If our students here at WMU feel inspired to be part of this movement, I not only want them to have that experience, but I also want them in this battle because they’re our best chance to succeed where those of us who came before them have fallen short. There is nothing I can teach them about language variation or historical linguistics or anything else I do in my classes that will matter more to their education and development as human beings than the experience of standing up for what they believe in, being part of history, and possibly even chalking up a few wins.
That means on March 14 and April 20, if some or all of my students decide that instead of coming to class or working on their data analysis projects or meeting me for office hours, they will walk out of their classes and add their voices to those of young people across the U.S. to say Never Again, they’ve got my blessing and I’ve got their backs.
While it is for each individual faculty member to decide how to handle a possible student walkout, I hope many of you will join me in standing with these brave young people.
Lisa C. Minnick
Associate Professor of English
and Gender & Women’s Studies
Western Michigan University
814 Oakland Drive
Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008