“We’re in a rural part of [the state]. It’s a gun-heavy area. There were several meetings with our school board prior [to the walkout] because they were concerned what might happen with it…I had parents threatening on both sides, “If you don’t let my kids walk out, we’ll sue you,” “If you let the kids walk out we’ll sue you.” … We had prepped the students beforehand, said, “Hey, we’ll support your civic right to gather and protest and whatnot, but make sure that your parents call you in and excuse you for that time, and then be peaceably in this area that we set aside outside.”

—Public High School Principal, 2018

School leaders across the nation have noted a rising tide of student activism. The focus, scope, and tactics of the protests have ranged widely. Student protestors have addressed gun safety, LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, climate justice, school dress codes, and more. Some student protests have been coordinated by national organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety, and some have risen organically from a small group of students who want change.


What should principals think about this heightened civic energy? To be sure, student protests present leadership challenges. Activist students aim to create change. Through protests, they may disrupt established schedules, highlight disagreements within diverse communities, or undermine support for long-standing school policies and practices. But student protests also present unique learning possibilities. Protests potentially provide young people opportunities to practice sharing their ideas and working together to make a difference. And, through dialogue and reflection, student protestors can critically assess and learn from their successes and their failures.

How should principals respond to student protests? Some helpful answers to this question emerge from a study we conducted with nearly 500 high school principals across the United States following the massive nationwide student protests that followed the tragic 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Here’s the short version: Principals need to understand both their legal obligation to ensure student rights and their educational obligation to promote students’ democratic development.

Legal Considerations

A helpful (but only partial) framework for how principals should respond to student protests emerges from the United States Supreme Court 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. Mary Beth Tinker was a 13-year-old junior high school student who joined several classmates in wearing black armbands at school to protest the war in Vietnam. The school district suspended Mary Beth and four other students, arguing that “schools are no place for demonstrations.” The Supreme Court rejected this view and held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” While finding that students maintain First Amendment rights in school, the Court also reasoned that imposing restrictions is appropriate when protest activities “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

The Tinker decision calls for principals to balance their interest in ensuring school safety and order with their students’ interest in exercising political speech. Principals can establish reasonable terms for student protests—what often are referred to as time, place, and manner conditions. Importantly, principals must establish these conditions in ways that do not privilege or discriminate against particular political viewpoints. In other words, conditions must be content neutral. Further, if students organize a walkout during school hours to protest a school policy, the principal may not discipline students beyond the punishment they would receive for walking out of school for any other reason.

Principal Responses to Student Protests Following Parkland

In spring 2018, following the deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. public high school in history, students across the nation participated in protests at their schools. Many student protesters walked out of class for 17 minutes to commemorate the 17 victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. According to our estimates, gun violence protests involving at least 25 students that year occurred at more than 60% of U.S. public high schools.

We were curious to learn whether principals sought to deter the protests, manage the protests, or educate students in light of the protests on their campuses. In a survey conducted in the summer of 2018 and in follow-up interviews, we asked a nationally representative group of high school principals about their responses to the gun violence protests. Three questions shaped our inquiry: First, did principals follow Tinker’s legal guidance? Second, did principals use the protests as an opportunity to promote student learning? Third, if they did, how did they do this?

Almost All Principals Followed Tinker’s Guidance

Very few principals violated the spirit of Tinker by discouraging or preventing students from protesting. Only 3% of principals in our survey reported efforts to deter student protests. In interviews, one principal shared that he had removed a student banner that had been hung from a fence in front of the school to advertise the protest. The rarity of such action is encouraging. By following Tinker’s guidance, leaders not only protect their schools from legal challenges, but they also model democratic values and send an important message to protestors and the rest of the school community.

Protests potentially provide young people opportunities to practice sharing their ideas and working together to make a difference. And, through dialogue and reflection, student protestors can critically assess and learn from their successes and their failures.

More than 95% of principals reported that they sought to manage the protest by establishing time, place, and manner conditions and informing students and parents about the school’s policies. Often in interviews, principals told us they worked with students as protest plans developed. One principal said, “We met with the organizers of the event. We set up a timeline, we set up a location, and we set up kind of some parameters around what they could be protesting, and where that would be taking place.” As they negotiated the terms of the protest, most principals tried to follow Tinker’s commitment to content neutrality. Nearly all principals we spoke with—those who disagreed with student protestors as well as those who were sympathetic to the students’ cause—noted that educators should not impose their views on students. One principal told us, “You’re supposed to shape the direction of the school, but you’re not actually supposed to hold your own values, right? I believe in that.”

A Majority of Principals Educated

Most principals who managed the protest also viewed the protests as an opportunity for student learning. Almost 60% of principals reported talking with students after the protest about lessons learned. Such efforts to promote students’ civic development represent a move beyond the legal guidance of Tinker and speak to principals’ ethical and professional commitments—as expressed in the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders—to “safeguard and promote the values of democracy.”

Educational Channeling or Educational Facilitation?

In interviews, principals articulated two distinctive approaches to education in the context of student protests—what we describe as educational channeling and educational facilitation.

One group of principals viewed the protests as an opportunity to direct (or channel) students’ activism in line with their own vision of “proper” or “appropriate” civic participation. For example, one principal told us he sought to “channel [student] willingness to be involved” in the protest away from vocal and rancorous participation and toward “a positive way” of expressing one’s opinion. While this principal believed he was guiding students toward more effective forms of participation, his stance—that activists should “not [be] too loud”—contradicts a large body of research on civic engagement. By limiting the full range of youth civic expression, educational channeling likely eclipses some of the civic energy and agency that young people bring to protests.

Another group of principals viewed their roles as facilitators who help students forge deeper understandings of what it means to participate powerfully in civic life. Through dialogue and questions, this group of principals provided students with the tools and opportunities to reflect on their plans, their actions, and the process of social change. One principal described posing questions to students organizing the protest: “What do you want to see get done? What message do you want to send? … How do you want to be heard? What’s the best way to go about doing that?” Through extensive dialogue, his students “came to their own conclusions.”

A few principals who embraced educational facilitation used difficulties that emerged during the protests as a springboard for student reflection. At a school located in a politically divided community, the impact of the protest against gun violence was blunted by a counterprotest organized by another group of students, who began to chant, “Don’t take our guns!” The principal met with students from the original protest group and asked them what issue they had been advocating for. The students offered a variety of responses: Some focused on gun control, and others, on school safety. He talked with these students about how difficult it is to plan for counterprotests if you are not clear about your own goals; he encouraged the students to think about “whatever you’re doing … that people know why.”

Leading for Democracy Means Leading Democratically

As student protest becomes more common, principals will need greater clarity about their own role—how they should engage student activism and with what purposes. Principals’ responses to student protests highlight complex dynamics associated with negotiating power amid multiple and sometimes contradictory goals of safety, control, freedom of expression, and civic development.

Principals who wish to “safeguard and promote the values of democracy” certainly need to follow the legal protections of Tinker and ensure that students are not denied essential rights of expression when they are on campus. But, more than that, leading for democracy means affirmatively supporting students to express themselves and encouraging student reflection and dialogue about how their civic energy can forge a better society for us all.

John Rogers is a professor of education in the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. Joseph Kahne is the Ted and Jo Dutton Presidential Professor for Education Policy and Politics and co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside. Alexander Kwako is a senior scientist in the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.


Bosi, L., Giugni, M., & Uba, K. (2016). The consequences of social movements: Taking stock and looking forward. Cambridge University Press; and Taylor, V., & Van Dyke, N. (2004). “Get up, stand up”: Tactical repertoires of social movements. In D. Snow, S. Soule, & H. Kriesi (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to social movements (pp. 262–293). doi.org/10.1002/9780470999103.ch12

Kwako, A., Rogers, J., Earl, J., & Kahne, J. (2023). Principals’ responses to student gun violence protests: Deter, manage, or educate for democracy? Teachers College Record. 125(2) 131–177.

National Policy Board for Educational Administration (2015). Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015. Reston, VA. npbea.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Professional-Standards-for-Educational-Leaders_2015.pdf

Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969).