Monday, March 31, 2008

Student Walkouts and Youth Responsibility

Here is an article that fits the standard mold of youth rights advocacy. The setting, as almost always, is school. The students are all protesting against a detached governing body, and they are protesting because they feel they have no other way to guarantee they are heard. The author of the article invokes the American tradition of civil disobedience, using the standard examples of the nations founding, and the more curious example of Douglass MacArthur. I have not read exactly this article before, but it rings true, has a pleasant familiarity to it. Or rather, it would, if it wasn't dealing with an intelligent, informed populace making reasonable demands and being unfairly punished for it.

And this is partly the problem. The article paints the youth as sympathetic, and by all rights they are. This screams of injustice, and calls for a more meaningful forum to be created to so that those attending school can air their concerns with those who work at the school and those who create and implement school policy. This is a call for more youth autonomy, protections for the students when they take the political action available to them, and more valid forms for youth political action. There is no reason to want to deny those rights to these youths. The article is brilliant in it's design that way, and this "look, the kids are doing what we want responsible citizens to do" approach is pretty solid.

But there's a flaw. I'm not saying that we should look at these Long Island students and their civil disobedience as anything less than the ideal of youth political participation, and they are fully justified in their aims, and would be fully justified in receiving the rights they could ask for. That is good, and positive. Nothing wrong with that. My problem lies elsewhere.

Advocacy movements start with the rights for well-behaving citizens, and move on to include the rights of those who err. Jean Six was a big deal not because it was about granting rights to people whose conduct showed a worthiness of rights, but it was about granting rights to people simply because they are people. If the legal system exists only so that the dominant culture and appropriately-behaving segments of other cultures get full protection under the law, then justice has failed in being blind. Likewise, I like this article, I like this story, and I like what the students here have done, but I want the rights extended not just to them, but to all youth.

For these students to be truly satisfied that their opinions matter, they'll need earlier citizenship and to be able to vote in local elections while in high school. If they don't get both the protection of citizenship and the right to vote (hopefully the full right, but local voting would suffice), they will still be subject to the decisions of the principal without recourse (except through parents, which is disempowering). This is big, as the disciplinary action is what prompted the editorial, and the disciplinary action is what comes across as fundamentally unjust. Dissent is vital to democracy, and it's okay for dissent to fail, but for people to be punished for dissent is absurd and undemocratic.

But I can say this, from my position of trusting youth with the responsibility to vote and to be full citizens, and I can point to an example like this, and say "this is why we need change, so that these youth can be acknowledged as the upright citizens they are". This people are comfortable with, and can agree with. But these same rights, rights that let youth live their fullest as participants in a democratic society, won't be brought up the next time a youth stands accused of some crime. When the media hits upon the next youth tragedy, and they mention the decision to try the youth as an adult, they won't say "because we have acknowledged that youth, whether committing crimes or acting as democratic citizens, can take adult responsibility for their actions". Youth are responsible adults when guilty and there is no thought it put into that. But they are disenfranchised kids when participating in democratic society through the only means left available to them.

This article is necessary, because we need to hear the good stories to make people comfortable with youth rights and youth responsibility. But we need this perspective as a constant in discussions of youth.

(full disclosure - I was informed of this article by an assistant editor at Newsday)


baker said...

The article you linked to opposed to punishing the students who enacted civil disobedience, which seems to me contrary to the point of civil disobedience. A school should be proud of having such civicly minded students, however I think an administrator would be remiss both as an educator and an enforcer if they issued no punishment.

Kelsey Atherton said...

Baker - I think the article is opposed to punishing the students because civil disobedience was the only avenue of dissent available to the students. Certainly, the very nature of civil disobedience requires authorities to punish the behavior, and then changed to be enacted to prevent future unjust treatment. If there was no risk and no punishment, the action would have far less meaning and value, and not mobilize as well for change.
If the students had another means to express discontent available, punishment for choosing this method would be more legitimate. As it was, I think the author of the article believes that this activism should go unpunished because there was no other outlet for the youth's civic spirit. Speaking for myself, I don't want the youth punished for using the outlet of political expression available to them; had the youth chosen to do this instead of voting (assuming they could vote), then yeah, punishment strikes me as just.