Open Society Institute-Baltimore denounces Dr. Gregory Thornton’s statement, in a letter to BCPSS families, that legitimate forms of protest like walkouts are on a par with violence and vandalism. While we don’t condone violence, we call on Dr. Thornton and BCPSS to adopt policies and practices that honor the struggle to achieve racial justice in Baltimore and that respect students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.
On April 27, in response to specious rumors of a student-led “purge,” city leaders stopped the buses that would have carried students safely home. These students were instead met with a line of police in riot gear. Following the unrest, BCPSS launched an extensive investigation that targeted students who participated in the unrest with the goal of punishing them for activity they engaged in outside of the schoolhouse.
Rather than learn from the mistakes made on April 27, BCPSS seems determined to repeat them. The letter authored by Dr. Thornton threatens to have a chilling effect on students’ rights to peacefully express themselves. Lumping walkouts and acts of civil disobedience with criminal acts like vandalism and violence is reminiscent of strategies used to turn the public against the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Instead of suppressing students’ First Amendment rights and belittling their potential contributions by offering them a space to “express their emotions,” BCPSS should create spaces within schools, and partner with others to create spaces in the community, for students to share their ideas and proposals for reform. If history books have taught us anything, it’s the important role that young people can play in bringing about key changes in racial and social inequality.
OSI-Baltimore echoes Dr. Thorton’s concern for the safety and well-being our students, but pitting student safety against students’ rights to participate as full citizens is a false choice. We can achieve both, and BCPSS must be a leader in helping us all do so.