Middle and high school students across the country plan to walk out of classes Wednesday as part of a national call for gun control measures that might prevent mass shootings, like the one that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.
For the National School Walkout, many of these students are skipping classes under threat of punishment from principals and superintendents. However, college-bound high schoolers are being supported by more than 200 colleges and universities, including several Ivy League and top-rated institutions, which have pledged not to hold suspensions against applicants who peacefully participate.
Objectively, it’s hard to find fault with this response. The Supreme Court affirmed students’ right to free speech without fear of undue reprimand in 1969. But there’s one thing that some activists are struggling to overlook in colleges’ reactions to the #NeverAgain movement, which was sparked by predominantly white and affluent high school students in Parkland. Almost none of these institutions were so publicly supportive of the predominantly black and brown high school students who walked out of classes to protest police brutality — and to declare that “Black lives matter” — just a few years prior.
“What we’re seeing right now, and rightfully so, is that these young people in Florida are being affirmed by the actions that they’re taking,” Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, a black youth organizing collective, said in an interview. “But the message that young [black and brown] people are receiving, right now, is that not only do their lives not matter, but their voices don’t matter, and their education doesn’t matter, as well.”
Six colleges that Mic contacted — and who publicly declared their support for students’ First Amendment rights in the recent gun control protests — clarified that their support for peaceful activism extends beyond gun control advocacy.
“We cannot make blanket statements about future actions by students, but will likely apply similar criteria for students engaged in peaceful, lawful protests,” a spokesperson for DePaul University in Chicago said in an emailed statement. The school had been vocal about its support for the Parkland movement, joining many others that tweeted statements from official Twitter accounts.
Asked if university administrators met prior to issuing the statement, the DePaul spokesperson said their position on the Parkland student-led protests was consistent with a previous admissions policy regarding high school suspensions and their impact on how they consider applicants.
“No vetting of the statement was required because it’s simply reflective of a current practice in which we do not deny admission to, nor rescind admission from, a student who may have incurred disciplinary action for exercising first amendment rights,” the spokesperson said.
That support matters, black activists said. And it’s not just because black students should have the same assurances as white students that constitutionally protected protests will not preclude them from admission to their first-choice colleges. If universities desire student leaders like outspoken Parkland survivors Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, many of them emerged during walkouts that called for justice in the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases in 2012 and 2014, respectively. After Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, many young protesters were met with militarized police forces, who indiscriminately deployed tear gas canisters and shot rubber bullets into crowds.
In another emailed statement, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst said it “did not receive inquiries about disciplining of high school students and how it might affect college applications, when protests of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown deaths occurred.”
Aside from the Martin and Brown cases, there’s plenty of historical precedent for black student involvement in protest movements. Student activists were central to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which resulted in the passage of both the federal Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, was sparked when hundreds of students skipped classes and marched to city hall against Jim Crow segregation. That action yielded now-iconic images and footage of law enforcement officials turning fire hoses and police dogs on black protesters, who were taken to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. History books don’t show those students being assured fair admissions consideration at colleges — and many colleges weren’t even integrated at that point, let alone interested in publicly supporting civil rights protests.
Relatedly, there’s still a diversity problem at many institutions of higher learning. Enrollment data shows black and brown students are underrepresented at most top-tier universities. College graduates see more earnings across their lifetimes than those without undergraduate degrees, multiple studies have shown.
Those facts left some Black Lives Matter activists wondering what could have been, had colleges been as supportive of students involved in their movement.
“We should’ve seen this type of action years ago, when black students were walking out, staging protests, pushing [and] raising their fists in the air,” Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a group formed in response to Martin’s shooting death, said in an interview. “So, I hope that moving forward we will be able to recognize the value of all different types of protests.”
Colleges clarify their support for student protests
Of the six schools Mic contacted, each one affirmed their support for students who participate in peaceful protest. Their full statements are included below.
University of Connecticut
UConn has assured students who have applied or been admitted that disciplinary action associated with participation in peaceful protests does not affect their admission decision in any way. UConn conducts a holistic review of each application, with successful candidates for admission representing a breadth of achievements, both academic and extracurricular. That has historically been the case and will remain so. UConn supports the rights of all citizens at all age levels who express their free speech rights peacefully and with respect for others’ opinions. - Stephanie Reitz, spokesperson
DePaul University (Chicago)
In response to your questions, we offer that the information in the Tweet cited in the ‘HuffPost’ article was issued in response to a direct question, not something that grew organically out of our own desire to encourage student engagement. We cannot make blanket statements about future actions by students, but will likely apply similar criteria for students engaged in peaceful, lawful protests. No vetting of the statement was required because it’s simply reflective of a current practice in which we do not deny admission to, nor rescind admission from, a student who may have incurred disciplinary action for exercising first amendment rights. - Carol Hughes, Office of Public Relations and Communications
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Actually, this is not a new position for the university, it was just a point of clarification. WPI has always believed that peaceful protests are an important part of our democracy. WPI also believes that students should hold fast to their values and principles, and we always review our applicants with an eye towards who they are as people. Participating in peaceful protests will not hurt a student’s chances of being admitted here. WPI believes that peaceful protests are an important part of our democracy. We also believe that students should hold fast to their values and principles. - Alison Duffy, Director of Public Relations
University of Massachusetts (Amherst)
Participating in a peaceful protest that reflects an individual’s position on an issue is a deeply held personal choice. If a high school student is disciplined for a peaceful protest, it will not be held against the student in the admissions review process. This approach was communicated during recent national discussion of #NeverAgain protests about gun violence, and it applies to other pressing issues of concern that may prompt student protests. It certainly includes protests focused on racial justice and violence. The recent guidance provided by admissions about #NeverAgain was in response to questions raised following the announcement of a national day of protest, potential student walkouts, and statements made by high school officials that discipline might be imposed. Admissions recalls that they did not receive inquiries about disciplining of high school students and how it might affect college applications when protests of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown deaths occurred. What we want to emphasize, although the context differed in these matters, is that peaceful student protests will not be held against any student in the admissions process. UMass Amherst firmly supports the First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Those familiar with our campus know that rallies, speeches and protests are a common occurrence here. We are proud of our community’s tradition of activism and we support it. - Edward Blaguszewski, Executive Director of Strategic Communications
The sentiment expressed in the @BrownUAdmission tweet does not articulate a new position. Rather, it was a statement on our current approach that we shared publicly given the significant level of questions we were receiving from prospective students and parents. Peaceful, responsible protest activity that aligns with the values articulated in our protest and demonstration guidelines does not negatively impact decisions on admission to Brown and it will not in the future.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Note: The office of Stu Schmill, MIT’s dead of admissions and student financial services, forwarded a statement he previously made about gun control walkouts. The office pointed to the inclusion of the phrase “(or any other) issue,” in response to Mic’s inquiry.
So: if any admitted students or applicants are disciplined by their high school for practicing responsible citizenship by engaging in peaceful, meaningful protest related to this (or any other) issue, we will still require them to report it to us. However, because we do not view such conduct on its face as inappropriate or inconsistent with their prior conduct, or anything we wouldn’t applaud amongst our own students, it will not negatively impact their admissions outcome. We hope that this explanation will clarify the principles and policies that guide our decisions, articulate the importance of responsible citizenship, and give students the freedom to follow their own compasses wherever they lead.