This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
The Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike echoed around the world all the way to Pierce County, where student activists gathered at People’s Park on Tacoma’s Hilltop before marching to City Hall.
It was a stirring display of post-millennial solidarity. Dozens of young people stepped up to be hands-on organizers, poster makers and chant leaders, rallying for a cause much more galvanizing than homecoming week: their inheritance of a livable planet.
Skipping school rarely gets an official blessing, but this walkout got a big thumbs up from Gov. Jay Inslee. Washington’s most famous climate-change opponent said if he had the authority to excuse all the climate activists from class, he would. But he doesn’t, and the different ways that school districts handled the Sept. 20 strike have sparked flames of controversy.
Tacoma Public Schools administrators, to their credit, played things straight down the middle; while saying they support students’ right to peacefully protest, TPS required a note from a parent or guardian for the absence to be excused. That’s a sensible policy, consistent with many other school districts, from Bellevue to New York City.
Surprisingly, it was Seattle Public Schools, smack dab in the middle of one of America’s most progressive cities, that announced it would not excuse students who participate in the rally.
Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau said that “when civic engagement includes missing class (i.e. participation in a walkout), there are standardized consequences. ‘Civil disobedience,’ by its very definition, takes that into account.”
She’s absolutely right; facing consequences is important. It’s the difference between showing one’s convictions and proving the courage of one’s convictions, a lesson young people today are too often spared from.
But why should kids who miss class for an act of social conscience be held to a higher standard than those whose parents let them skip school for other reasons — say, an extended family vacation or a Puyallup Fair outing?
We say the occasional exercise of dual First Amendment rights, free speech and assembly, can be edifying for students. It might take the form of a one-day climate strike. It might be a 17-minute protest against gun violence, which hundreds of South Sound students joined last year to remember 17 people killed in a Florida high school shooting. It might even be folks rallying on the opposite side of those issues.
TPS issued Climate Strike guidelines to teachers and staff last week, saying that alternate points of view must be respected. They also said any walkout must be initiated and led by students — a crucial point, which we hope all Tacoma teachers honored.
Complaints have surfaced that young activists seen Sept. 20 on Sixth Avenue outside Jason Lee Middle School were being whipped up by adults to yell and wave their signs. One passerby who wrote the TNT claimed that teachers were engaged in “brainwashing” and “training up little social justice warriors for (their) own agendas.”
TPS spokesman Dan Voelpel said Monday he’d heard those complaints but wasn’t aware of any teachers advocating alongside their students, though other adults were present.
The district ought to investigate any allegations of staff involvement. No social-issues advocacy should occur on taxpayer-funded time.
But local educators should also continue to provide reasonable accommodations for students who want to participate in occasional youth-led demonstrations, like the Global Climate Strike.
During his recently aborted presidential run, Inslee gave voice to the growing grassroots anxiety about climate change. “Our house is on fire,” he liked to say. So perhaps students should simply explain that leaving classrooms was a fire drill for planet Earth.
It’s inspiring to see young people in the Tacoma area refuse to surrender their inheritance without a fight.