Students are demanding action – in schools, in the streets of their communities and in government office. And the next big step of their mission will be taking place soon.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence will host a Student Power Rally Tuesday, Aug. 14 on the State House lawn at 3 p.m.
Featuring student speakers from the RICAGV’s Youth Committee, the rally will aim to unite student activists in Rhode Island and educate them on their rights as students. The event is open and free to all who express an interest in learning about the rights of students to protest in their schools, and who wish to convey their belief that action must be taken in order to reduce the harm caused by gun violence in America. The event has been planned and organized entirely by members of the Youth Committee, overseen by Katherine Kerwin. The committee has more than 50 members from across the state at both the high school and college levels.
The centerpiece of the event will be the unveiling of a student rights handbook, a booklet composed by members of the RICAGV Youth Committee in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island. The handbook’s purpose is to educate students on what their rights are when they make political statements in a school environment.
Featuring colorful illustrations and descriptions of both state and national laws pertaining to the rights of students, the handbook will serve as an accessible and simple-to-understand introduction for students to learn about rights that aren’t always made clear to them in school-issued student manuals.
Members of the Youth Committee have been working hard to secure performers and donations from local restaurants for the event in the meantime. Insomnia Cookies, Chipotle and Granny Squibb’s will be donating food and refreshments for the event, and additional caterers are currently being sought out. Several local music groups are also having their presence requested; a few musically experienced students of the committee will also be performing their own music, though the official lineup has not yet been finalized.
“We want to get students engaged in the long run, and we want them to learn and exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Grace Reed, a volunteer with RICAGV since the past winter in an interview last week. "A healthy democracy can only exist when everyone stays engaged and informed. I'm hoping that this rally and our other youth engagement initiatives will help activate the 18- to 24-year-old age range that had the lowest voter turnout in the 2016 election, as well as younger students who are getting ready to vote."
A recent graduate of Toll Gate High School, Reed was a founding member of her school’s Civic Action Coalition, an after-school group for students seeking political change and activism. As one of the youth helping to compose the handbook, one important right she hopes to convey is that a school that permits any sort of after-school student organizations must also allow organizations with explicitly religious or political motives to form as well.
Silas Gibbins, a sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design, is one of the committee members assisting with the graphic design of the handbook. Simple graphics will be used to more clearly illustrate the points mentioned in the handbook for quick and easy understanding. The handbook is intended to be used as a reference for students who are unsure of their rights, and to be presented as a defense if their rights are challenged by school authorities.
Tinker vs. Des Moines is an important decision mentioned within the booklet. The Supreme Court case, ruled in 1969, decided that the freedom of students to express political opinions in school buildings is protected under the First Amendment.
The handbook also mentions that, while students can be disciplined for leaving class for a walkout, the consequences cannot go beyond the typical punishment issued to students who skip class. Students cannot receive a more severe punishment just because of the political nature of the walkout.
“Just because schools can punish students [for walkouts],” affirmed Reed, “doesn’t mean they should.”
Knowing what rights they have is crucial for students making political statements in a school setting; for example, the March 14 walkouts held by high school students across the nation in response to the Parkland shooting in February. After 17 students were killed by a gunman at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students across America expressed their outrage and desire for change by walking out of school. They remained outside the building for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim, and talked about the need for increased gun control in America.
Reed explained that students across Rhode Island had vastly different experiences when they attempted walkouts in March. While Toll Gate and High School permitted students to step outside and allowed members of the school’s Civic Action Coalition to speak their minds, other high schools in the state were not as lenient when it came to allowing student voices to be heard. Several students were barred from walking out or threatened with suspensions if they left the building to protest gun violence. Many students voiced frustration that their school administration attempted to redirect the discussion to school safety procedures rather than gun violence, thereby erasing the inherently political message students were trying to convey.
The RICAGV Youth Committee partnered with the Providence Student Union, Young Voices RI, Moms Demand Action and the Institute for the Study and Practice of Non-Violence, is comprised of middle and high school students from across Rhode Island that work to find ways to influence government action at both the state and national level. Under the mission of the Youth Empowerment Strategy, a project coordinated by RICAGV, students will be trained with the proper public speaking and civic engagement skills needed to advocate for stricter gun control.
Among the legislation the Youth Committee seeks to support are the Safe Schools Act and the Assault Weapons Ban. The Safe Schools Act would prevent concealed carry permit holders from bringing firearms into K-12 schools in Rhode Island, while the Assault Weapons Ban would restrict the possession and sale of semiautomatic assault weapons.
The Youth Committee itself is divided into four subcommittees, each with a separate focus. During monthly Youth Committee meetings, students can spend time with the Urban Gun Violence Committee, the Youth Power and Students’ Rights Committee, the Voter Registration Committee, or the Electoral Committee. Voter registration is considered a particularly important issue among youth, as the 18-24 age group regularly sees the lowest voter turnout in the state during elections.
For more information, or to get involved with RICAGV projects and volunteer opportunities, interested parties can visit www.ricagv.org.