Students try to stir “good trouble” with March for Our Lives Tampa walk
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Editor’s note: The staff provides full disclosure of this story in stating that the primary reporter attended a number of events related to March For Our Lives. The staff of RHSToday.com does not promote the March For Our Lives movement, nor does it take a stance on gun control or students’ rights. This article is solely for informative purposes.
Ever since the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students around the country have been speaking out about gun violence. This has taken a turn to Hillsborough County, and particularly Robinson, where students are attempting to be heard.
Currently, a group of students from around the county are organizing the March for Our Lives Tampa, which is a sister walk to the national non-partisan march promoting positive change in Washington D.C. on March 24. There are approximately 4,000 sister walks being held around the country on Saturday. To further the impact, some schools have also coordinated school walkouts and similar protests.
But these activists all face a major conflict: students are not guaranteed first amendment rights and are subject to suspension and other administrative punishment.
“Schools should be encouraging students to speak up about their own political opinions because we’re the ones that will succeed them in voting, running for office, etc.,” Robinson junior and one of the March for Our Lives Tampa coordinators Alyssa Ackbar said. “Also, just because we’re young doesn’t mean that schools can stop our voices from being heard, as many have seen from the March for Our Lives campaign, we have a voice and it’s strong.”
This issue of the first amendment right beyond the school gate has placed a challenge particularly on Robinson, as the school is not promoting the upcoming walk in any way.
“It’s not that Robinson can’t get involved,” Principal Robert Bhoolai said. “But as a school, my job at school is to maintain academic integrity and although the events that happened at Parkland were very tragic, I have to make sure that we don’t steer course.”
In 1969, the Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruled that both students and teachers still received full first amendment protection when in the school gates.
But, in 1988, the Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier case reversed those relaxed standards. If administration prevents the publication of newspaper articles or does not allow protests or advertisements for certain causes, it is not a violation of the first amendment.
Many believe this limits students’ ability to be civically engaged, especially in a time so hard-pressed with issues right on schools’ fronts.
“I think we have to respect their rights, they’re citizens of this country too. You are our customers,” Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins said. “We have to make sure that when a challenging situation happens like the one that’s happening right now, it’s going to affect everyone. I think as long as it is planned and there is a purpose behind it, it honors you for what you believe in but it also allows the environment to be stabilized.”
The New Voices Legislation, the law that restores the Tinker case and allows high school students the full first amendment rights, is currently active in 13 states— Florida is not one of them.
“I really do [think that students deserve the New Voices Legislation],” Eakins said. “You guys are changing the world and we need to listen to your voice, we need to respect your voice.”
The law gives student journalists the rights to be treated as professional journalists, and still considers libel and slander to be illegal.
On March 14, 3,000 walkouts and school protests took place honoring the Parkland victims one month after the shooting.
During that time, Hillsborough County schools were on spring break, but schools around the country were told “no” by administration regarding the walkouts.
Hardford County Public Schools in Baltimore were not allowed to protest against violence in schools, although three students organized walkouts anyways.
Baltimore is one of the states lacking New Voices Legislation.
On Friday, March 16, Congresswoman Kathy Castor met with several Hillsborough County students, including two Robinson students, to discuss what changes could be made both in the administrative handling of this free speech issue and of current school safety. She discussed how “good trouble” was necessary for students to be heard– which was what those three Hartford students were stirring.
Gun control has been placed in the political spotlight, making it seem like a Democratic versus Republican issue. And although Castor falls under the Democratic party, she is promoting the non-partisan walk. According to the march organizers, the purpose of the march is to “promoting positive change” against gun violence in schools, and it is up to each individual to march for what change they see is needed to end that.
After all, the political disagreement is not in the idea that schools should be safe, but in the proposals to make them safe.
Robinson students, as well as others around the nation, hope that people can begin to see that civic engagement isn’t necessarily a distraction, but its own form of education.
And to do so, they’re fighting for access to the first amendment.
“If we aren’t able to grow up in an environment where we can speak freely, we are being raised to be subservient and will lack the guts to challenge anything,” Dominic Mazza (’19) said. “On the flipside, there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed and I think if you address those, you are not violating first amendment rights.”
“I don’t think I’ve told any students to not get involved in any movements, I’ve not told any students to not allow to voice their opinion,” Bhoolai said. “Simply, Robinson as a school. we’re not going to mobilize the school but if students want to get involved outside of school, they can.”
The March for Our Lives Tampa walk will take place on Saturday, March 24 at Kiley Garden in Curtis Hixon Park from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. It is a non-partisan protest against gun violence in schools.