Although the nationwide school walkout against gun violence Wednesday and subsequent marches and demonstrations planned March 24 are touted as student-led, the youngsters are relying heavily on adult assistance.
Social media posts by frustrated kids in Parkland, Fla., shortly after the mass shooting at a school there last month were read and reposted by students across the country. That outcry grew to a movement to get adults to do something to keep them safe in school.
Dozens of civil rights and social-justice organizations across the country and here in metro Atlanta have aided the teens through training sessions, financial and emotional support, advice and cautionary tales.
“We’re not trying to direct you or tell you what your heart should do,” said Mawuli Davis, civil rights attorney and president of the Beacon Hill Branch of the NAACP, at a recent seminar at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur to show the youngsters how to get deliver their message in the safest, most effective way. “We want you to be fully informed of what your rights are as students and young demonstrators.”
Davis, who helped craft an Atlanta ordinance to end cash bail for most minor, nonviolent offenses, is a founding member of Let Us Make Man, an organization to help black men succeed and stay out of jail. He spearheaded the seminar at the church and another one at Georgia State University.
“We don’t want you or your parents to think that you’re on your own,” he told the approximately 60 participants Monday night at the church. “We want to help you through the process.”
One objective of the adults involved is to keep the kids safe while they make their demands known. “We want you to return home to your parents on Wednesday the same way you left that morning,” said attorney Tiffany Williams Roberts, who is also deputy director of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism at the Georgia State University College of Law.
Representatives from the NAACP, ACLU, Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, Restore DeKalb, SisterCARE Alliance, Hate Free Decatur, and John Marshal Law School took part in the training.
To be an effective advocate for change, you have to take care of yourself first, Anana Harris Parris of SisterCARE Alliance told participants.
“Drink lots of water: You won’t do any good if you’re cranky and dehydrated,” she said. “And the day of the march isn’t a good morning to skip breakfast.” Basics like that make up a list called “Safety Protocols for a Peaceful March” she handed out.
One of the most important is keeping your own emotions in check. “If you are feeling anger, distress or extreme sadness, excuse yourself from the march, find a safe space, rest and express your emotions,” she read from the list.
“We’re hoping that you can learn from our past mistakes,” said Davis. “All of these suggestions are tried and true.”
Tim Franzen, formerly of the Occupy movement, is now Georgia Peace and Conflict Resolution Program Director at American Friends Service Committee. He set up an exercise to desensitize the kids somewhat to taunts, shouting and name-calling they may encounter.
This training was geared more toward the March 24 march in downtown Atlanta. Wednesday, schools will have resource officers and other security on duty to keep non-students off campuses.
With adults and teens face-to-face in two lines, he encouraged the adults to let loose with their worse and explained to the students that this is what it’s like in the real world. “There are going to be people prepared to confront you and make you lose control,” said Franzen. “Being prepared for the onslaught will help you keep your cool.”
As young and not-so-young discussed challenges of the movement, some of the high school kids admitted mixed emotions about what they were getting into.
Lena Clark, a sophomore at Decatur High, said she’s already had in-school suspension and doesn’t want to ruin her record. “But this is something that’s bigger than me,” she said. “I have two more years to get ready for college.”
Classmates Nadia Crawlle, Trevi Carlton and Olivia Poth-Nebel nodded in agreement.
“This can make a difference for years or decades to come,” said Carlton. “I can’t see myself not doing this.”
Janel Green, executive director of Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, said in a phone interview, “It’s been a pretty amazing process, and these students have exceeded our expectations. They have the passion and the determination, but they just need our help with fundraising and getting the right permits and things like that. Even though it’s all about them, we’re here for support.”
Cobb stance worries SCLC
Leading up to Wednesday’s demonstration, school administrators are concerned about safety and disrupting learning and students don’t want to get in trouble.
Rumors about how they could be punished, and how participation might affect their high school record and transcripts, have prompted concern among some of Cobb County’s ambitious, college-bound students.
They received some outside support Tuesday.
The Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference issued a statement backing students who it said have faced “continuing ambiguous threats of disparate consequences.”
Unlike Atlanta and DeKalb, which will not punish students for peacefully protesting, Cobb has said students “may be subject to consequences in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct.” Cobb school officials have not detailed what punishment students will receive.
The SCLC chapter’s attorney, Gary Pelphrey, said, “We want to assure Cobb students and parents that our national organizations and legal advisers will have their backs and be monitoring walkouts to make sure that any consequences which result are fair and not excessive or disparate.”
ACLU Georgia has set up a legal hotline for students and parents who face discipline or have questions about students rights surrounding the demonstrations: 833-2STUDENT; and a social media hashtag for reporting or posting photos or videos of civil rights abuses: #WALKOUTATL