Thursday, March 19, 2015

Somali Students Walk Out: What should we do

This year, on the anniversary of Freedom Summer and Selma, I've been speaking to young people about the power of youth to make things better. I've been reminding them of the young people who stood up to make their communities better hoping to engage adults to make their community more welcoming. Sometimes, those of us who fought those battles fifty years ago, pushed the limits. But we forced change.    Walking out of school is perhaps technically a violation of school rules, so how should we respond. 

First, I think its very important that we recognize that Somali students are raising a concern that school districts hear from other students., white, African American and Asian.    We can ask, well, why should Somali students get this attention, but I think the answer is that all of our students deserve the same school environment.   I don't hear Somali students asking for anything different from what our white students and parents expect.  Our Somali students and our white students  want us to make sure that our schools are welcoming, safe and academically successful. 

 That's right:  All of our students and parents want the same thing. We adults can listen or we can get defensive and try to figure out how to avoid listening. Improving our schools is not a Somali issue, or a black issue or a white issue: it is an issue that impacts all of our young people. Students want to be treated fairly; to be challenged with high expectations; to go to classrooms where disciplinary expectations and academic expectations are equally high for all students.

When parents write me, they sometimes raise a concern that possibly a different group of students is getting special treatment.   Yet, nobody asks that their children get treated better than anyone else.   All of them are really united around the same objective:  they want to be respected equally; they want their classrooms to be quiet when quiet is called for; they want to learn in an atmosphere free of bullying. Whether Somali, African American, white, Asian or native, they are asking for a school that we can go to without fear, that prepares us, all of us, for a great future.

When young people ask us to make things better, let's use that as an opportunity to make things better for all of our students.  If Somali students feel that they are being bullied, its more than likely that white students feel that they are being bullied as well.  That's no excuse for failing to respond proactively.    We can meet the request of Somali students and white students at the same time.   Making a school safer and more welcoming for white students doesn't require making it less safe for Somali students, and making schools safer and more welcoming for Somali students doesn't require making it less for White students.   A welcoming environment is infectious:  when all students are welcomed; when bullying is suppressed; when high standards of discipline  are enforced as to all students equally, all students benefit.  So let's not make it a divisive issue. 

If white parents are concerned about Somali parents getting attention on this, my advice is, join together and ask for the same thing with one voice.   Instead of "why are they getting support to make the school more welcoming,"  how about trying this: "I'm so glad they are raising this issue, I want that for my kids too." 

As far as the walkout goes, we'd like to think that students could walk-in to the principal's office, instead of walking out.  And hopefully, next time there is a problem, that is what will happen.  On the other hand, we ought to be glad that they spoke out in some way. Its time for adults to say, boy that's a whole lot better than young people doing drugs, defacing their desks with graffiti, or skipping school to go to the shopping center. Asking for change is a part of a proud American tradition

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