Last weekend, USC Admissions tweeted that high school students disciplined for participating in peaceful political protests regarding gun control would not be penalized in the admissions process. USC was just one of several universities across the country — including MIT, Stanford and American University — that have issued statements.
Universities are just the latest entities to wade into the political fray following the Feb. 14 tragedy in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman with an assault rifle entered a high school and left 17 dead. Corporations like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart have announced stricter regulations on their sales of firearms. Delta Airlines and Hertz Rent-a-Car have ended their partnerships with the National Rifle Association. And high school students have taken the politics of gun control into their own hands by starting the nationwide #NeverAgain movement. Now, universities have joined the movement too. This is important not only for the rights of students, but also in cultivating university environments that support students, from filling out their applications through their graduations.
What has followed the Parkland tragedy is a positive departure from the norms of mourning and internalized helplessness that have gone hand-in-hand with the far too many mass shootings we’ve witnessed in recent history. Student and survivor-led, goal-oriented activism has surfaced and is arguably more energized than any other movement in recent memory. Therefore, it is universities that should protect and uphold their rights to do so without punishment.
High schools in states like Texas, Louisiana and other predominantly conservative regions are threatening students who participate in political walkouts or miss school to protest for gun control reform with suspension and other disciplinary action that will go on students’ permanent records. Because disclosure of disciplinary records is often required in college applications, these high school administrations are sending a political message of their own: that students who wish to express their values and make their voices heard should be punished and denied opportunity. This is damaging to students because instead of civic participation, these schools are sending the message that young people should either be silent and know their place or suffer the consequences for breaking from this norm.
Therefore, it is up to universities to purvey a counter-message. Just as corporations and students have sent a counter-message in the face of policymakers’ inaction on the issue of gun control, universities painting political activism as something to be applauded and defended, rather than punished, matters just as much. If this movement has taught us anything, messaging matters. People and organizations speaking out matters.
Schools should be sanctuaries. Students shouldn’t have to fear for their lives, and should be able to speak up when they do. Any university that is committed to equipping its student body with the tools to make a positive difference in the world must also stand up for students’ rights to create that change.
Of course, it’s worth noting that not all high school students who wish to simultaneously participate in the political dialogue, act on their convictions and pursue higher education are immunized by these high-profile universities’ promises. Low-income students in conservative-leaning states may rely on admissions from public, local colleges that may not share the sentiments of USC’s admissions office and its forward-thinking admissions policy.
In their lifetimes, young people have witnessed the devastating cases of Sandy Hook, a shooting that claimed 27 lives at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012; they have seen 10 killed in a mass shooting at an Oregon community college in 2015; 49 killed at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando in 2016; and 59 killed by a mass shooting in Las Vegas last October.
And simultaneously, last month, they watched President Donald Trump roll out a budget proposal that would slash $25 million from school safety and violence prevention programs. The student survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have watched Florida state lawmakers refuse to even debate a ban on assault weapons immediately after the school shooting, and listened to excuses from their senator, Marco Rubio, about the millions that he receives annually from the National Rifle Association.
In this context, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring that young people, many of whom are not yet even allowed to vote, could look at such a devastating situation and still have hope, feel passion and want to partake in a fight that many seasoned, adult politicians lose every time. To discourage rather than reward this resilience is an unthinkable attack on a generation that has, for far too long, been punished by the American political system and the action-less “leaders” it has produced.
Going forward, in order to build an engaged student body, — one that is not only passionate but also transforms passion into action and initiative — universities must be mindful of prospective students’ disciplinary records. If we truly want equal civic participation from all demographics, universities must not punish but embrace student activism.
Daily Trojan spring 2018 Editorial Board