Sometimes, teaching democracy means stepping back

Governor Walker’s budget repair bill is a topic about which few people have a neutral opinion. Of late, the most vocal are those who are opposed, and rallies have surrounded the Capitol with those traveling from across the state to show their support — “peaceably to assemble,” as the First Amendment of the US Constitution puts it.

This has, indeed, been a rich opportunity to for free expression. But none so interesting to me as what has been happening in the public high schools in our state.

On Monday, 100 students from Stoughton High School walked out of their classrooms to protest the impact the bill may have on their teachers and school. On Tuesday, hundreds of students from Madison East High School left their classrooms to make a two-mile walk to the Capitol. They were joined in spirit by high school students in Appleton, Platteville and Janesville. These students left their campuses, knowing full well the consequences they risked, to express their opinion regarding a crucial civic issue.

The Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court decision of 1969 found that it was not unconstitutional and did not offend the First Amendment to punish students for expression that “materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Surely, discipline is substantially interfered with when students defy their teachers and administrators by leaving the classroom during school hours to engage in expression — in some cases, just off of school property. The consequences for these young people are real, and the schools are within their rights to deliver them.

And yet, I can’t help but hope that schools take this opportunity to teach democracy by stepping back. While it’s likely some students opted to participate in these walkouts as an opportunity to miss school, a great many more participated because they found an issue that could not be ignored. They found within them words that need to be spoken, a voice that needed to be heard. When this has passed, who knows how many will retain that passion for involvement in civic affairs? How many will become regular and reliable voters? How many will dedicate their lives to public service to improve the lives of those around them?

Free speech has sparked in Stoughton, Madison, Appleton, Platteville, Janesville and likely many more schools. Left alone and unguided, a spark can either die out or rage out of control. Teachers and administrators can guide that spark into a steady fire of civic and political engagement. But for now, they just need to step back and let it begin to grow.