Las week, the administration at Falmouth High School made a decision that took some, including many students, by surprise. A group of students have planned a walkout for March 14 to both memorialize the 17 individuals killed in Parkland, Florida, last month and to call for stricter gun laws nationwide. Several parents apparently objected to the demonstration. Rather than hold the line, administrators decided to capitulate, and granted an excused absence to any student who chooses not to attend school on that day. This decision, in addition to setting a terrible precedent, also represents a missed teachable moment about how the First Amendment works.

Last month’s attack at the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School has captured the public’s attention as few such shootings have in the past. One of the main reasons for this has been the decision on the part of several student survivors to take their case for more restrictive gun laws to the court of public opinion. In addition to making a full-court press among state legislators, the students have called for a nationwide 17-minute walkout on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the shootings. In addition, they hope to rally individuals concerned with gun violence to attend a march in Washington, D.C., on March 24, or many associated rallies in major cities across the country.

Students at several schools on Cape Cod have already announced their intention to participate in Wednesday’s walkout. As with most schools, the administrators in Falmouth have supported their students in their decision to exercise their First Amendment rights – a welcome decision, as some schools in other parts of the country have announced that students will face disciplinary action, including suspension, if they decide to participate. In fact, in many cases both here and elsewhere, students are working directly with their administrations to ensure an orderly event that does not unnecessarily disrupt the school day. At Falmouth, as in most schools, students who choose not to participate for whatever reasons will remain in their classrooms.

It is this last factor that makes Falmouth High School’s decision all the more inexplicable: students who do not want to be part of this protest already have that option; no one is requiring that they leave the classroom, that they memorialize the dead, or that they listen to others speak about the dangers of semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity ammunition clips.

But in allowing an excused absence, what the administration has done is grant a day off, no questions asked, for anyone who wants it. This potentially sets a dangerous precedent. What happens the next time a group of students want to exercise their First Amendment rights about a similarly controversial topic, such as abortion, the death penalty, immigration, or even free college tuition? Granted, the current issue has engendered particularly strong feelings, but could not any of these other topics also prompt such reactions?

Obviously, the issue of whether or not the federal government should impose more restrictive gun regulations has polarized many across the country, and the rhetoric has grown heated on more than one occasion, as it often does when the issue of guns arises. This has made some people understandably uncomfortable and even alarmed.

Still, this environment provides a perfect opportunity to discuss the rights and responsibilities associated with the First Amendment, and the need to discuss matters, especially heated ones, in a calm, respectful manner that focuses on the facts and which seeks common ground instead of demonizing opponents and retreating to separate ideological corners. Further, it provides an object lesson in the importance of standing behind one’s ideals and about being able to publicly express those beliefs without fear of ridicule or retribution.

Survivors from Parkland have vowed to carry on until their concerns are addressed, and their example has mobilized many students to follow suit. In Somerville, for example, some high schoolers have begun weekly protests, vowing that they will continue until such time as there is substantive change on the national level. The fact that teenagers are both aware of what is going on around them and are interested in participating in the national discussion should be celebrated rather than undermined. In this case, it is the students who are teaching the rest of us a valuable lesson in what democracy truly looks like.