By JoAnn Bartoletti

The current controversy over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem has reignited the debate over appropriate student expression. In terms of student rights, there seems little to discuss. Courts have affirmed and reaffirmed that students do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, and speech cannot be curtailed unless it creates a material disruption to the educational process.

Yet in this debate, something greater is at stake than individual student rights. The controversy challenges the very purpose of school as a place of learning.

A student’s taking a knee can trigger a crucial conversation about the nature of protest, about what taking a knee represents, and even about why it might offend some observers. But students must first know that school is a safe place where they can learn to amplify their voices courageously and constructively. They need to be empowered to have those conversations now so those skills are well practiced when they participate in a democracy and ultimately lead their future—the precise aim of NASSP’s Raising Student Voice & Participation framework. None of this happens when schools teach a ritual compliance, even when prompted by a well-meaning respect. Compliance, after all, is a skill in little demand for 21st-century success.

NASSP is proud of its legacy of student empowerment. We are the founders and the home of the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, and National Student Council—all of which have launched generations of leaders. Today, those programs provide ready-made platforms for courageous student-led conversations about things that matter to students. Such conversations are the essence of learning. And you cannot have real student learning without real student empowerment.

JoAnn Bartoletti is executive director of NASSP.

About the Author

JoAnn Bartoletti is executive director of NASSP.

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