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Education Opinion

High School Student Activism Makes an Impact

By David B. Cohen — February 13, 2016 4 min read
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Two nights ago I attended a school board meeting, and watched with pride as students from my school addressed the school board on the issue of renaming the middle school that many of them attended. Their three-minute remarks were not only well-prepared individually, but also well-coordinated to minimize redundancy as more than a dozen of them went in turn to the microphone. The school board had already heard about the issue in a prior meeting, so trustees were preparing to vote on the creation of a committee to bring recommendations regarding school names, and when the time came, the trustees delivered a 5-0 vote to create that committee, as the students had hoped.

The school is named for David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, a scholar, a pacificst - and a leading eugenicist. His scholarship and institutional leadership inspired admiration, and led to naming a school after him. His beliefs and writings about eugenics were in line with his contemporaries, but no longer reflective of our values or aspirations, as a current Jordan Middle School student discovered in his research about the school’s namesake. That student’s father launched a petition that called attention to the issue, and students helped move it forward with the school board. While some commentary on a local news outlet website leans in favor of keeping the name for the sake of tradition, the more persuasive voices at the school board meeting argued that we are under no obligation to continue honoring someone whose views are so at odds with ours. As some students pointed out, Jordan’s writings on eugenics put him at odds with the current vision and mission of our district, and the school that bears his name. Eugenic legacies in our community run much deeper than the names on schools, and should be further addressed and mitigated. Hopefully our students will continue to speak out so passionately and effectively.

Around California, there have been other recent examples of students speaking out about their schools and the policies that affect them. In the city of Clovis, a conservative school board did what conservative school boards do best - pretend it’s still 1950, and cite tradition to justify the misuse of institutional authority to suppress unpopular views and non-conforming behavior. In “The California Report,” David Marks writes that the Clovis Unified School District dress code

“forbids boys from wearing earrings or keeping their hair below their earlobes. A proposed update would have set the same standards around hair and jewelry for both boys and girls, and would have removed language saying skirts and dresses are for girls. Last Wednesday, Clovis Unified trustees voted 4-3 against updating the policy.”

In protesting their school leaders’ myopia on this issue, some students at Buchanan High School intentionally flouted the dress code; some pictures of boys in dresses attracted national attention to the story, and earned kudos for the students.

In Berkeley, a city with a long tradition of free speech and protest, Berkeley High School students made headlines last year by walking out after a racist threat was posted on a library computer. The media hasn’t been as attentive since the students returned to classes, but the Berkeley High School student newspaper, The Jacket, (the school mascot is the Yellowjacket), reports that the student protest has been followed by action: black student leaders brought concerns and demands to the superintendent and school board, and the superintendent returned to their campus to describe changes that would be implemented. The article notes that the district response did not satisfy student leaders, parents, or community organizations, but credit the students’ activism for keeping attention on the issues and possible improvements.

Student walk-outs and boycotts have been effective in generating attention for a number of issues around the country.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, students helped galvanize public opinion against their school board’s proposed guidelines for the teaching of American history. The board took the position that the A.P. United States History curriculum was too negative, and so trustees sought to create new policy requiring curricular materials that would “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights.” The protests contributed to a political shift in the community that led to the recall of the majority of the school board a year later.

Students at Roosevelt High School in Chicago boycotted school lunches to protest unappetizing and unhealthy food.

Chicago students also protested inadequate school funding, and charter school expansion undermining their neighborhood school.

New Mexico students walked out over PARCC testing.

Minneapolis students protested against immigation policies and deportation orders.

Others have taken note of high school activism on the rise in the U.S. (see: Melinda D. Anderson, in The Atlantic, and Aaron G. Fountain, Jr., in Al Jazeera America). Both authors provide additional examples, and note that teens are not always taken seriously in social protests. Any adult who has worked with teens extensively knows that they can be impulsive, simplistic, and spectacularly naïve. So can adults. What’s remarkable and inspiring is that at a young age our teens can also be thoughtful, informed, passionate, and right. Idealism has been famously dismissed as a luxury of youth; if we’re lucky, maybe they’ll share enough idealism to help us old folks out.

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