Kids Can Lead the Charge
Today, I had a conversation that I’ve never had with one of my children. As I was driving my youngest child – an 11-year old 6th grader – home from school, he told me about an “active shooter” drill he had today in his first period English class. He explained to me that with his classroom so close to the school entrance, his class would likely be in the line of fire if someone came to the school and started shooting. He shared with me his game plan of where he would run across the school and how he would escape.
While I am grateful that he is adhering to the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” I couldn’t help but feel my heartbreak as I was listening to him explain his reality. His reality is very different than my reality when I was 11 years old and in the 6th grade. Having been blessed to be the dad of three great kids, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of respect for my kids’ perspectives. And while they lack the wisdom that comes from experience, and some of the intelligence gained through education and formal training in certain areas, they are each unique, talented critical thinkers and their reality and perspective is different than mine and my wife’s.
My kids’ voices are valuable, beautiful and insightful. As he shared with me his reality of what he fears as he begins his school day, it helped me understand the issue of safe schools even better. Having served as an elected School Board member for one of the nation’s leading and largest school systems, I feel that I have gained some valuable experience, yet my perspective is still different than my 6th grader’s.
Daily, I read with frustration as “talking-head” journalists, social media “trolls”, and “weak kneed” politicians actively criticize the students across this country who are seeking to have their voices heard on the issue of gun violence in our schools, and specifically the rash of mass shootings we’ve experienced. While I am not here to expound on the policy debate about gun control or school safety, I owe it to all those I love and care for to share my insights about whether kids’ opinions should be heard as part of our national debate.
On February 27th, researchers at The George Washington University Columbus College of Arts and Sciences published an article entitled, “Why Shouldn’t Kids Lead the Charge on Gun Safety?”. In this article, the researchers cite my experience and that of my friends, fellow youth activists, almost 30 years ago when we mobilized a successful effort to enact the nation’s first bicycle helmet law for children under 16 years of age in Howard County, Maryland. We did this as a reaction to the tragic loss of our friend Chris Kelley who was hit by a car while riding a bicycle in front of my home. It was our goal to prevent such a tragedy from happening to others, and to give meaning to something that seemed so unfair and unjust.
Despite our efforts, there was plenty of opposition. The vote that enacted the law was split 3-2. There was an attempt to repeal it within 3 months of its passage. There were reporters and political hacks that criticized our efforts and attacked us personally. And to this day, I still get criticized by many for what we did. Even when I successfully ran for School Board 8 years ago, there were even bloggers who tried to spread lies suggesting that I wasn’t even involved in the effort to create the law. However, what we did was great – not because we were great, but because our cause was great, our friend Chris was great, and there is no greater love than trying to save the life of another. As a friend recently told me, great breeds hate. I learned back then that when you try to make the world a better place and save lives, you will also create an equal and opposite reaction of those who will try to derail you, demean you, and even try to destroy you. To this day, I pride myself on being a “social entrepreneur” who successfully solves problems affecting our society. And certainly, my efforts still to this day breed “haters.”
The voice of youth should be heard and will be heard – despite what the talking heads, social media trolls, and politicians may say. The motivations of these young people are no different than that of my friends 30 years ago. They seek to prevent such a tragedy from happening to others, and to give meaning to something that seemed so unfair and unjust. While some may disagree with their ideas, disagreement does not justify devaluing their voice. Unfortunately, the world we live in today has become more polarized, journalists rarely report the facts anymore and have become editorialists, and our ability to have constructive debate seems impaired.
So, to the courageous students who seek to constructively share their voice in this national dialogue, I say, “Speak Up and speak out. Ignore the criticisms and irresponsible journalists. Have the courage to learn about the issues and find solutions to the problems.” Certainly, these problems will never be solved by just passing a law, as criminals by definition don’t obey laws. But, we can certainly have a well-reasoned, unifying national conversation about school safety to develop a plan that will end these mass shootings.
This national debate must give our young people a chair at the table and a voice in the debate. It will not only help us build a lasting solution, but it will help all those involved heal their hearts. As a former youth activist whose adult life was shaped by my activism, I offer my voice to support your voice. I offer my advice and counsel to assist in any way I can to help protect our kids. As I use to say when I was an elected School Board member, our kids are 33% of our population, 0% of our voters, but 100% of our future. Let our kids speak and let us be focused on a better future, as the “reality” of fearing mass shootings in our schools is a reality that we can all agree needs to change.