Area students attended a rally in Liberty Plaza at the Georgia Capitol after their school walkouts on Wednesday, March 14, in Atlanta. 
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

Student leaders to UGA: End silence on gun protests

The University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University pursue top students like Mallory Harris, Thomas Moore and Marisa Pyle because they expect them to tackle the hard problems and make the world a better place.

And these three students, all of whom attend UGA, are taking on a challenge their elders haven’t been able to solve -- the gun violence that makes America vulnerable to school shootings like the deadly one in Parkland, Fla.

(Firearm-related deaths are the third leading cause of death among U.S. children aged 1 to 17 years.)

So far, neither the UGA students nor like-minded peers at Tech or GSU have gotten even a crumb of official support for their efforts from their campuses or the Board of Regents.

Many of the nation’s top universities applauded the March 14 national school walkout, in which close to a million students walked out of classes for 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and staff killed at Majory Stoneman Douglas High a month earlier in a six-minute shooting rampage.

But there’s been only silence from Georgia’s public campuses, although faculty and students have risen in defense of the high school activists. Many college students across Georgia attended and helped organize rallies around the state, including Harris, Moore and Pyle.

Here is a letter the trio sent to UGA and the Board of Regents and shared with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We are college students at the University of Georgia, and today we have a simple request for UGA’s administration and the Georgia Board of Regents: support its present and future students as they find their political voice. 

Of the three of us, all hold leadership in campus organizations. We are working for campaigns for federal and state office. One of us is the recipient of a Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious award for undergraduate research in STEM fields, having turned down admissions at Harvard to attend the University of Georgia. One of us writes for a prestigious school publication, has met with US Senators and Representatives, and has studied abroad at one of the world’s top universities. One of us is a social media influencer whose content has been published in national outlets while he served in leadership for the statewide Democratic Party. 

In the past month, the three of us have each organized and led Marches for Our Lives events and called for gun violence prevention. These marches have included the Athens rally, featuring nine local candidates and high school speakers; the nearly 400-person Dahlonega rally, which attracted The New York Times, nationally-renowned speakers, and congressional and gubernatorial candidates; and the Atlanta rally and march, which had approximately 70,000 participants, received international coverage, and was marshalled by Civil Rights icon and Congressman John Lewis. 

This week, seven congressional districts in Georgia invited their representatives to attend town halls on gun violence. All of these events were organized by UGA students. 

We are, in other words, the very sort of Georgia students that this state hopes to convince to attend state universities and, ultimately, begin a career in Georgia. 

We have deeply benefited from the quality of education offered by UGA, and feel compelled to speak out against the university’s silence. 

We wish to continue moving Georgia schools forward and recognize their current inaction will only serve to discourage the future generation of thinkers, leaders, and changemakers from pursuing degrees at our schools. 

On March 14, over a million k-12 school students across the country walked out of their schools to memorialize the nineteen students killed in schools since the shooting at Parkland, Fla., and to demand policy change. 

On April 20, the 19-year anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, students across the country will participate in a second walkout. We recognize the students conducting policy research, contacting speakers, organizing voter registration drives, and mobilizing their peers are developing skills that will equip them to propel their future communities forward. 

Students are facing severe punishment for the exercise of their constitutional rights. Across the nation, high school students have been given detentions, and suspended, some as close as in Cobb County Schools. At the Bradwell Institute in Hinesville, Ga., the administration gave a student a five-day suspension for participating in a walkout. 

These disproportionate reactions, stemming from the political nature of these protests, aim to discourage students from using their voices and standing up for what they believe in, and impress upon them that their safety is less important than the potential discomfort of administrators. Furthermore, they fear that participation in these events, which will prepare them to become campus leaders, will negatively impact their college admissions prospects. 

We ask that UGA release a statement affirming its support of civil disobedience (what a particularly exemplary Georgian would refer to as “Good Trouble”). We do not ask that UGA take a side on this issue, but merely voice their support for the right of students to free speech in the form of nonviolent protest. We wish for UGA to reassure all potential students that admissions will disregard unjust disciplinary consequences connected to these walkouts and any other peaceful activism that that they wish to pursue. 

draft of such a statement was provided about a month ago by a UGA senior from Sandy Hook,Conn., the horrific scene of the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in which 26 died. 

All of UGA’s aspirational peer institutions have released statements to this effect. Top universities across the country have extended these assurances to potential applicants. 

If UGA truly does strive to lead the state and the country in student excellence and attracting future leaders, our administration must stand with these students as they find their political voices, or risk losing our position as a standard-bearer of social progress and innovation. And more than that, risk losing the trust and admiration of potential students who speak out against injustice. 

To UGA and the Georgia Board of Regents: We urge you to recognize the courage and tenacity of your future students. 

And to the brave Georgia students who are leading action on their campuses: We recognize and applaud you, even when institutions won’t. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.