February 14, 2018, the day of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, changed the lives of young people across America. So many thoughts ran through my mind: Why is this happening again? Who would do such a thing? Are there any casualties? And then I thought about the implications this tragedy would have on my own school.

I watched and listened with the rest of the world as students exercised their voices by declaring what they needed to feel safe. Directly after the massacre, the Parkland students moved into action by immediately starting the activist group “Never Again,” organizing a student walkout across the country, and orchestrating the “March for Our Lives” nationwide protest. I couldn’t have been prouder, but what did a walkout mean for my students?

As a principal of a middle school, I was concerned about the safety of my students during a walkout. As I began playing all types of scenarios in my mind, the student government association (SGA) sponsor asked to meet with me. During the meeting, they informed me that the tragedy at Parkland weighed heavily on the minds of our students and staff. The students shared that they had an interest in participating in the nationwide walkout on March 14. I shared my concerns but wanted to work collaboratively with the student leaders to create a platform for students to speak and express their truths. They asked for time to strategize and devise a plan before getting back to me. I agreed.

Approximately a week later when we resumed our meeting, I was amazed at the plan that the SGA had created to support their constituents in exercising their civil rights while maintaining a safe environment. They planned an assembly that stressed the importance of school safety and what students could do to support it. We changed the school schedule to accommodate the assembly. Students had the choice to attend the assembly, go to the cafeteria for a study hall period, or participate in the walkout during that day. Approximately 40 students attended the study hall. One student walked out. The remaining 840 students attended the assembly. Our student leaders did a great job of highlighting the importance of school safety and how we as a school can enforce that.

The assembly began with SGA students introducing themselves and commemorating the lives lost by showing pictures of the victims and reading their biographies. SGA members then shared their own personal perspectives on the tragedy and held a Q&A session with their fellow students about school safety. Then, school safety protocol was reinforced by a school parent in the U.S. Army. Once students were dismissed from the assembly, they returned to their respective classes for 17 minutes of silent writing and reflection.

I learned a valuable lesson during this experience. Sometimes our kids will tell us what they need and how they need to receive it. We prepare them for leadership, and when it’s time, we can’t be afraid to let them take the reins.

Jewel Sanders is principal at Rosa M. Parks Middle School in Olney, MD.

Sidebar: Tips for Advisers to Support and Develop Student Leadership

When aiming to assist budding student leadership, it’s important to do the following:

  • Discuss with student leaders the outcome they want to achieve.
  • Help student leaders determine some possible steps needed in order to meet the outcome, such as signing petitions, holding meetings, and overcoming barriers.
  • Make an appointment to meet with the school administration to discuss proposals/plans. Follow administration directives to solidify the proposal. If there’s a disagreement, compromise.
  • Create a platform for student leaders to address the student body.
  • Provide feedback throughout the entire process. Timely feedback will ensure that students stay focused and adhere to the initial vision/proposal.
  • Time management is key. Create a realistic timeline.
  • This should be student led. Students should be the ones setting schedules, making appointments, meeting with administrators, collecting student voice data, and addressing their peers.
  • Have fun! This is an amazing time in students’ lives as they gain leadership skills and become tomorrow’s future.