Children across this country are letting adults know — with great passion, courage, savvy, and strength — that we are failing them. Their voices are raw and yet astute, unpolished and yet articulate, strong and yet innocent.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are just the latest group of young people, which have rightfully and fairly pointed out that political leaders at the federal and state levels have unsuccessfully protected them from harm, as 17 students and teachers had their lives taken by a former student with an assault weapon on Valentine’s Day at their school.

Source: Stoneman Douglas High School website

The students are rejecting the old and sadly repetitive paradigm where policymakers have historically offered “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and families of gun violence but refuse to take subsequent action to end it. Words don’t cut it.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times writes:

Children keep dying. And our country won’t do anything about it.

The United States, to put it bluntly, has grown callous about the lives of its children. We mourn their deaths when they happen, of course. But it’s an empty mourning, because it is not accompanied by any effort to prevent more suffering — including straightforward steps that every other affluent nation has taken.

Stoneman Douglas students have organized #NeverAgain protests on-line and in public that demand change, including a March for Our Lives scheduled in Washington, D.C., for Saturday, March 24.

In a raw, emotional, eloquent, and passionate speech that will not soon be forgotten, Emma González demanded legislative change and an end to inaction by both federal and state lawmakers.

These are kids that have experiences that adults outside of schools do not understand. They have experience active shooter drills throughout their lives — learning how to hide in closets and underneath desks in order to shield themselves from death. Guns are not a symbol of freedom and safety to many young people. In fact, guns threaten their lives.

Therefore, the students felt and continue to feel compelled to speak out. As González writes:

We are kids, we are parents, we are students, we are teachers. We are tired of practicing school shooter drills and feeling scared of something we should never have to think about. We are tired of being ignored. So we are speaking up for those who don’t have anyone listening to them, for those who can’t talk about it just yet, and for those who will never speak again. We are grieving, we are furious, and we are using our words fiercely and desperately because that’s the only thing standing between us and this happening again.

Sadly, some adults felt the need to attack these children — kids who just witnessed a terrible tragedy where 17 of their friends and teachers were murdered. Among the Internet trolls were Fox News host Laura Ingraham, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and guest Dinesh D’Souza. They would soon regret it. Amid intense backlash, D’Souza had to apologize. The others should too.

Brilliantly and strategically, the students largely dismissing the voices of preposterous and outlandish conspiracy theories and adults that pedantically dismiss their right to have to a voice simply because they are children.

Addressing these attacks, González says:

We are children who are being expected to act like adults, while the adults are proving themselves to behave like children. . .

We have always been told that if we see something wrong, we need to speak up; but now that we are, all we’re getting is disrespect from the people who made the rules in the first place. Adults like us when we have strong test scores, but they hate us when we have strong opinions.

With just the right combination of wit and snark, they are also letting condemning adults, weak-kneed politicians, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) understand that they represent a movement for change that will not passively go away.

The students have recognized that Internet trolls are nothing more than distractions, that the road to change is long, that they will need to fight and overcome paralyzing cynicism, that they will need to outlast their opponents, and possibly even need to remove politicians from office with their future votes.

In a system where gridlock and inaction are the norm, these kids are already making astounding progress.

They have seized the nation’s attention and there will be voices urging them to focus on just a narrow issue or two, but the students have already rejected limited, narrow, and unproductive proposals.

First, although the students are focused on protecting students in school, they also recognize this debate is about protecting children from gun violence both within and outside of school. Many of them in the #NeverAgain movement retweeted these posts about the six-year anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin and the recent death of 10-year-old Yovanni through gun violence.

That is one of the many reasons why they are almost uniformly rejected the idea of arming teachers. Not only do most teachers strongly oppose the idea, but the Stoneman Douglas students point out that it would likely be counter-productive and even misses the overall point entirely.

Policy changes will be required at the federal, state, and local levels, but arming teachers is not one of them. In fact, teachers across the country started a hashtag #ArmMeWith that pointed to a variety of things teachers would rather have for their students.

The fact is that gun violence threatens the lives of children each and every day in a variety of settings — not just in schools. Deaths caused by firearms have risen for high school-aged teens (15–19 years of age) in recent years, with 2,056 dying in 2013 and 2,665 dying in 2016, according to a Health Research Institute (HRI) analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

To put these numbers in context, Julia Belluz and her colleagues at Vox foundthat “guns led to more deaths than the next 12 leading causes of teen deaths combined.” For example, compared to the 2,665 firearm-related deaths, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes caused the death of 596, 293, and 54 high schoolers, respectively, in 2016.

Our children deserve much better from all of us. In fact, society’s failure to protect the lives and well-being of children is systemic. Far too often, politicians pay lip service to caring for children, but fail to make children a priority with respect to the full array of issues of importance to children.

The March for Our Lives organizers from across the country bear witness to this first-hand. They are on the frontline of recent legislative and policy trends that have shortchanged their futures.

For example, at the national level, the share of investments in children is at an all-time low of just 7.75 percent of the overall federal budget in FY 2017. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would have cut to further to just 7.47 percent.

Trump’s most recent budget also fails kids in a number of ways. As one example, the President’s own budget documents acknowledge that his recommended budget for education programs is “a $7.1 billion or 10.5 percent decrease from the 2017 enacted level.”

This would come on top of a long-term downward trend in funding for education at the federal, state, and local levels. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 29 states were providing less school funding per student in 2015 than they were in 2008 with Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature leading the race-to-the-bottom among states.

Robert Runcie, Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools (which includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School), had to take the extra step of calling out the Florida legislature for proposing cuts to education funding last year that would have required $6 million in cuts to schools in the county. Runcie wrote:

. . .you may be asking why cuts are being made to education, while the Legislature is poised to pass a historic total budget of $83 billion — and the state’s economy is growing, unemployment rates are low, and property values are increasing? The answer is simple — the Legislature has not prioritized public education in its budget.

He added:

Make your voices heard. These are our children and our schools. They deserve better.

I agree with the Superintendent. Children deserve much better.

Unfortunately, 2017 may have been the worst legislative year for children at the federal level in decades. Congress’s inaction or, even worse, threats to do harm to children dominated the year, as it:

  • Attempted to disproportionately cut Medicaid funding for children by hundreds of billions of dollars and failed to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP);
  • Failed to take any action to combat our high infant and maternal mortality rates;
  • Voted down two amendments in the U.S. Senate that would have substantially improved the Child Tax Credit for low-income children;
  • Failed to address fact that nearly 1 in 5 children live in poverty and the child poverty rate is 62 percent higher for children than for adults;
  • Increased the federal budget deficit by $1.4 trillion through the passage of a tax bill that was not paid for — a debt that children will be asked to pay off in the future;
  • Failed to address the enormous problem caused by President Trump’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for 800,000 immigrant children and young adults;
  • Failed to address a whole array of other children’s issues, including lead poisoning (where children are, yet again, prominent in the fight).

This year, President Trump’s budget proposals fail children again. Even on the matter of school safety, the President’s rhetoric does not match his budget. According to First Focus’s Rachel Merker, the Trump budget contains “dangerous cuts to education, health, and law enforcement programs that are aimed at keeping our children safe from violence and helping them cope with trauma.”

While some “adults” like Michelle Malkin attempt to disrespect, dismiss, and disregard young people and their right to have their voice heard by pointing to “Tide pods”. Malkin claims that teenagers “do not possess any semblance of wisdom because they have not lived those years. Their knowledge of history, law and public policy is severely limited.”

Although I am not sure what is going on with Malkin’s kids, I can guarantee that the teenagers at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the kids I know at Walt Whitman High School and B-CC High School in Bethesda, Maryland, know far more about civics and history than the vast majority of adults in America.

For those adults who feel some strange pathetic need to point to the shortcomings of kids, they should do some self-evaluation and recognize their generation’s enormous failure in fulfilling its responsibility to protect our nation’s children from harm. According to a recent study published in Health Affairs, the United States is “the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into.”

Specifically, the study found “from 2001 to 2010 the risk of death in the US was 76 percent greater for infants and 57 percent greater for children ages 1–19. During this decade, children ages 15–19 were eighty-two times more likely to die from gun homicide in the US.”

As if this isn’t bad enough, children are bearing the brunt of the divestment that is taking place in our nation’s schools. Children are hearing about adults who sexually abuse kids and institutions, such as the Catholic Church, Penn State, and the U.S. Swim and Gymnastics teams, that then cover it up rather than protect kids. Children are watching as President Trump threatens harm to their friends and classmates by letting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrives (DACA) expire and his increased deportation of children and families. Children are questioning why some officials in the State of Michigan and City of Flint would pipe water with lead into the homes of children and families. Children are witnessing people take to the streets for fetuses but do nothing about the deaths of children once born. And children know they will be the ones asked to fight when President Trump threatens war.

This is all far too real and disturbing to them. As Jon Lovett, co-founder of Crooked Media, writes:

One of the many questions those extraordinary Stoneman Douglas students asked was offered by Annabel Quinn Claprood. “I just want to know,” she asked, “Will my school campus be safe when I return?” No one could answer that question to any satisfaction. And not just in the obvious way, that it’s not possible to make such a promise. It was worse than that. No, Annabel, your school is not safe. It’s not safe at all. No school is safe. No concert is safe. No movie theater is safe. No mall is safe. No mosque is safe. No temple is safe. No church is safe. No street is safe. No home is safe.

This country is not safe for you. It’s not keeping you safe from gun violence. It’s not protecting your generation from rising seas and burning forests. It’s not safeguarding your financial future when the government borrows more than a trillion dollars for tax cuts to help corporations and wealthy heirs. It’s not investing in the economy you’ll inherit by building public infrastructure that meet the standards set by other countries. It’s not ensuring your success by helping you afford college. It’s not defending you against the excesses of corporate greed. And you certainly will not be safe from the rot in our political culture. . . .

Making Children a Priority Among Policymakers

How do we change the current narrative? While the kids at Stoneman Douglas are making progress and their March for Our Lives movement is something we should all support, how do we change society’s will to do right by our children in the long-term?

First, there is a need for a national public campaign to raise attention to the problems facing our children and to demand that policymakers take action to address the needs of children. At First Focus, we urge our sister child advocacy organizations to consider working jointly on a campaign, such as past ones that asked “Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding” and another that urged policymakers to ask and answer the question — “Is It Good for the Children?” — whenever they are making policy decisions. We must do a better job holding our policy leaders accountable on children’s issues.

Second, we need to elect more Champions for Children. Children are a mere afterthought to many policymakers. Fortunately, we are seeing movements, such as those in Oklahoma and Texas to change this. In ruby red Oklahoma, teachers that have become increasingly upset by budget cuts to schools have run for political office on an education platform and have had some success. And in Texas, educators and public school advocates have banded together with the commitment to #BlockTheVote and support candidates for public office — both Republicans and Democrats — that commit to supporting public schools and education funding. That campaign is underway now, as early voting is taking place in Texas’s Republican and Democratic primaries. We must urge others to #VoteKids.

Third, we need to improve the field of child advocacy. Children don’t vote and don’t have political action committees (PACs). Instead, they rely on child advocates to make the case for investing in children. Consequently, child advocates must step up their game to change outcomes and the well-being of children in our country. If we learn anything from the very children we advocate for, one lesson is that child advocates need to be more bold and demand change.

After the disastrous prior year for children in Congress, there were some important examples of recent success, including passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act that included, among other things, critically important extensions of CHIP for 10 full years and the Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for five years, passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act to combat child abuse and neglect, and a much needed increase in non-defense discretionary budget caps to increase investments in children’s programs. It will be important to think about lessons learned from these successful campaigns.

Fourth, we need to figure out ways to make systemic changes to our political system to create a better avenue for policymakers to hear and think about both the challenges facing our nation’s children and potential solutions to those problems. There is an array of options here — any and all of which would improve the consideration of children’s policy issues. They include:

  • Establishing a Bipartisan National Commission on Children: The 1991 National Commission on Children issued a landmark report entitled Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families that included numerous recommendations to improve the lives of children. Recommendations from that report helped lead to the subsequent passage of the Child Tax Credit and CHIP in the 1990s. Therefore, a new commission or council could lead to the creation of a new bipartisan framework and consensus policy agenda for America’s children that would be difficult for Congress and state legislatures to ignore.
  • Adopting a Child Poverty Target: This action would commit the United States to the goal of cutting our nation’s child poverty rate in half in 10 years, just as the UK successfully did under the leadership of Britain Prime Minister Tony BlairNew Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden recently committed governments in New Zealand to set 10-year targets to reduce child poverty, adopt a child wellbeing strategy, and report on progress each year. Legislation by Sen. Bob Casey (PA) and Rep. Danny Davis (IL), entitled the Child Poverty Reduction Act, would do the same in this country.
  • Creating a Children’s Budget: The federal government requires the examination of a number of topic areas where funding for an area, such as weather, bioterrorism, etc., comes from different agencies. The creation of a Children’s Budget would require a similar accounting of children’s programs so that the President, Congress, and the American people fully understand where children stand in the federal budget process.
  • Creating a Children’s Ombudsman or Commissioner: A number of European countries have Ombudsmen or Children’s Commissioners in recognition that adults are responsible for children and must pay particular attention to their special needs within government. The Ombudsman or Commissioner is given the power the investigate issues of importance to children within the government and to issue reports on how public policies or administrative procedures could be changed to improve the care and well-being of children.
  • Establishing a Youth Congress: In nation’s across the world, they have formed mechanisms, such the Youth Parliament in the UK, that give children a much needed voice in their government. As the Washington Post’s Steven Levingston points out, “History shows that kids, with their innocence, honestly and moral urgency, can shame adults into discovering their conscience.”
  • Lowering the Age of Voting to 16: In Lovett’s article cited above, he argues that lowering the right to vote to age 16 is a means to give children a true voice in finding solutions to the problems they face and defending themselves from harm. As Lovett explains, “Teenagers deserve the vote because the rest of us have proven that we are not adult enough to have their interests at heart. The NRA is right about the importance of self-defense, but wrong about the means. Voting is how America’s young people can protect themselves.”
  • Passing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): The CRC was adopted by the United Nations on November 20, 1989 and went into effect in September of 1990. As of now, the United States stands alone as the only country in the world to not have ratified the treaty. Passage of the CRC could have important implications on improving the status of childrenin our country.

Children must be seen and heard. The entire nation will be hearing from them at the March for Our Lives events on Saturday, March 24.

According to political commentator Sally Kohn:

A precondition to making change in the world around us is noticing injustice in the way things are and refusing to accept that this is the way they must be. That restless rebelliousness that has left so many parents and teachers frustrated is also the essential superpower of youth. Adults who too often are accustomed in acquiescing to the status quo are the ones who end up schooled by young people who notice the absurdities of flagrant injustice and dare to ask “Why?

Kohn adds:

In the history of social change in America and around the world, youth have always been a blessing — the blessing to believe that another way is possible and to insist on change, in spite of any barriers. Yes, kids can be impulsive. And when that impulse is toward more fairness and people and liberty for all, that impulse is not only just but timeless.

At First Focus, we stand with the young people at Stoneman Douglas High School and all the children and families that have been impacted by gun violence over the years. In recognition of the fact that adults and institutions are sadly failing to protect our children in a number of ways, we owe it to the next generation of children to ensure that they have a voice in their government and their own future. Old habits that allow society to treat children as merely an afterthought must end.

#WHATIF #ParentsPromiseToKids