Student Well-Being

Prospect of U.S. War Against Iraq Stirs Student Activism

By Hattie Brown — February 12, 2003 7 min read

Not even a surprise snowstorm could stop Vermont teenager Zoe Christiansen from rallying against a war in Iraq.

A high school student protests against possible war.

A Hadley, Mass., high school student joins thousands to protest a possible war during a rally held in Washington last month.
—File photo by Allison Shelley/
Education Week

Ms. Christiansen, a 9th grader at Montpelier High School, organized an anti-war protest in her hometown, hoping to encourage more young people to oppose a war. Three inches of snow had fallen by the time the march in Montpelier from City Hall to the Statehouse ended, but she says the weather didn’t ruin the December event, which she estimates was attended by 100 to 200 people of all ages.

“With this looming war in Iraq, I just got enraged about it,” Ms. Christiansen, 14, said. “I just wanted to organize something.”

As the likelihood of the United States’ going to war against Iraq has increased in recent weeks, middle and high school students across the nation have been expressing their views about such action. They are participating in discussions on the issue and attending rallies—activities that can pose challenges for educators, experts say.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell laid out the Bush administration’s case last week before the U.N. Security Council. “Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11 world,” he said.

Balance in opinion is essential for classroom discussions and school assemblies, especially when talking about a subject as volatile as a U.S.-led war in Iraq, said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.

Public school educators should not side with one political agenda or candidate during school hours, he cautioned.

“Obviously, these are very sensitive times. We know it’s hard for teachers to separate their personal feelings. But with these kinds of issues, it’s important they try,” Mr. Houston said.

“The fundamental [goal] of education is to create people who can think for themselves,” he continued. “You want people who can look at the facts and make a thoughtful decision.”

Legally, students’ political speech does have some protection in a school environment. The 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District upheld students’ right to wear black armbands in school to protest the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. In its decision, the court noted that such speech was “quiet and passive.”

However, students who disrupt school activities and infringe on other students’ rights are not legally protected, said Naomi Gittins, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association’s office of the general counsel. Also, the more the speech occurs in a school-sponsored arena, such as in an in-school assembly, the more power school administrators have over it, said Ms. Gittins, whose association is based in Alexandria, Va.

Most importantly, she said, “the students have to have notice of what they can and can’t do.”

Looking for Balance

Educators at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wis., have gotten a taste of the sensitivities involved in addressing the issue of war. In December, several Memorial High students organized two sessions during the school day that were scheduled to feature anti-war speakers.

A few students and parents complained about the one-sided lineup of speakers for the assemblies, which had been approved by the school’s principal. The district superintendent canceled the event less than a day before it was to be held, said Pat Calchina, a social studies teacher who helped to organize the sessions.

After negotiating with the offended students, Ms. Calchina rescheduled the events with a more diverse array of speakers. About 1,400 of the school’s 2,300 students attended.

Ms. Calchina said her students are “pretty critical and pretty questioning” of the possibility of a war with Iraq. About 40 students have formed a club called Peace and Action to Change Tomorrow. They meet every week to plan times to pass out peace literature and discuss issues such as military recruitment in schools.

“I think they’re scared,” Ms. Calchina said. “The boys don’t want to have to go fight it.”

Though anti-war, Memorial High sophomore Kate Schiffman acknowledged that “we have a lot of mixed views in our school.”

Students usually respect one another’s opinions, but that was not the case in December, she said. A few students tore down posters advertising the anti-war assembly and made rude remarks about the students who had organized it, she said.

“They really made it a battle,” Ms. Schiffman, 15, said. But, she said, “it brought a lot of attention to us.”

In some districts, students have been disciplined for skipping school to participate in anti-war activities.

In Petaluma, Calif., about 50 students from Petaluma High School were suspended for walking out of a morning class in November to attend a protest against a U.S. war with Iraq. And about 50 District of Columbia high school students received after-school detention for skipping classes on Jan. 14 to attend a daylong anti-war protest in the nation’s capital.

Some districts have tried to head off potential discipline problems and create a forum for discussion by sponsoring their own teach-ins or similar events.

The San Francisco school board, for example, last month authorized a “nonbiased” day of public discussion in the 60,000-student district. Students who feel uncomfortable participating can opt out of the discussions, which are to be held by the end of the month.

Board members decided to support a day of discussion about a war because students need more knowledge of current events and heightened critical-thinking skills, said Eric Mar, one of the sponsors of the resolution.

In the nearby Oakland school district, educators are drawing up lesson plans to teach their 48,000 students more about the prospect of war and the politics surrounding it.

The district faced criticism for sponsoring a teach-in at Oakland High School last month that was dominated by anti-war speakers. School officials said that no speakers supporting U.S. military action would attend the event, and that one day of instruction should not deter discussion of all viewpoints.

“Clearly if you attended the Oakland event, you might have thought you were at an anti-war rally,” said Dan Siegel, a member of the school board. “There isn’t really much to support the [Bush] administration’s decision, and in our community there aren’t many people who support it.”

Walkouts Planned

Schools may see more student walkouts on Feb. 21, which is to be the culmination of a “national week of resistance’’ organized by the New York City-based International ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War & End Racism. The 11-member coalition, which was formed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, includes the Muslim Student Association and a pro-Palestinian group.

Many high school students took part in weekend protests in San Francisco and Washington on Jan. 18 and 19, said Sarah Sloan, an organizer for the organization’s youth and student branch.

“We found incredible response from high schools,” Ms. Sloan said. “It’s especially young people who I think have the most to lose [from a war].”

Indeed, funding for education and health care were the chief concerns of about 40 Colorado high school students who rallied on Dec. 19 outside Republican Sen. Wayne Allard’s office.

“We feel like it’s going to be our generation that will have to deal with the consequences of Bush’s war,” said rally organizer Nick Salter, 18, a senior at Cherry Creek High School in Englewood.

Although most student activism to date has been against a war, that sentiment is not universal.

A majority of the 28 students in the class on Middle Eastern affairs at Gaffney High School in Gaffney, S.C., for example, are in favor of military action against Iraq, said Billy Pennington, who teaches the class. Mr. Pennington is also the adviser for the Teenage Republicans, a 50-member club with a pro-war stance, he said.

While implementing a military draft, which has been suggested by U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., and others, doesn’t appeal to all of Mr. Pennington’s students, he said most seem to be willing to serve. “They, for the most part, tend to be supportive of President Bush and what he wants to do,” Mr. Pennington said of his students. “I have a lot who want to join the military.”

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