Will Walk-Out Activism Ever Work at Stuyvesant?

Issue 7, Volume 113

By Helen Mancini 

I helped plan a global climate strike on March 25, 2021, with Fridays for Future, an organization started by Greta Thunberg in Sweden that holds school strikes for climate action around the globe. Fridays for Future representatives had negotiated different policies, such as marking students “absent for a strike” in attendance records, with administrators at schools including LaGuardia High School and Bronx Science. I attempted to negotiate the same for Stuyvesant, but after e-mailing the administration, I received an explanation of standard protocols from the DOE, and information about the strike was removed from morning announcements. On the day of the strike, an e-mail in blue font was sent to students and parents alerting them that the strike was happening and that while students could leave midday to attend with the support of the safety staff, absences would not be excused.

This September, I e-mailed again with detailed explanations for why the climate strike would be important for students to attend. Hosting indigenous speakers, a United Nations special envoy, and activists around the world, the September 23 strike was a critical experience for anyone concerned with the future of the climate movement. The response e-mail was only four lines this time. I knew the drill.

Climate strikes do not stand alone. Abortion protests and COVID protocol walkouts have also occurred this past year. In the stressed political climate of our time, many students have used walkouts as a way to take a stand on issues they care about, but the majority of Stuyvesant seems to be left out of these actions. I have tried many times to convince Stuyvesant students to come to climate strikes, but even though they care about the issue, students often turn me down in favor of preserving their attendance records. This past climate strike on September 23 mobilized about 5,000 people in total, with hundreds of students coming from public and private high schools, many with the support of their administrations. Yet Stuyvesant, despite its large size, brought fewer than 10 people.

Why? Many Stuyvesant students are already engaged within their communities, so these events may get lost in a sea of flyers. On the other hand, Bronx Science, a school with a similar extracurricular culture, has consistently brought over 10 times the number of students that Stuyvesant has to climate strikes. In this sense, the blame also falls on the Stuyvesant administration for not spreading the word or making any effort to excuse absences. Stuyvesant culture seems to call for civic engagement only when it is palatable to college applications and happening outside of school hours. The administration could be right. What makes walkout activism more impactful than the political volunteering, fundraisers, and park cleanups that Stuyvesant’s honor society and clubs already partake in? Excusing absences causes walkouts to lose their sense of protest.

Walkout activism is a unique opportunity for systemic disruption that cannot be substituted with volunteering, and excusing absences just affirms that the school in question supports its students’ endeavors. Activism that can fit into college applications and conforms to elitist value systems can do a lot of good, but they rarely break through those systems. Walkout activism also prepares students to participate in democracy and become active members of society, skills that are difficult to teach in a classroom.

Climate change is the perfect example of a systemic issue. Oil and gas are deeply intertwined with our global economy and collective way of life. Moving on from these energy sources requires radical change that is primarily being fought for by indigenous leaders, scientists, and young people. Stuyvesant promotes the science that backs the climate movement in its curriculum through classes like AP Environmental Science and Honors Biology. The school is in consensus about climate change being an important and even existential issue, so students should not have to fear the consequences of protesting in favor of solutions. Furthermore, insofar as schools operate to protect students and improve their futures, they should empower them in their fight against crises that pose a threat to our generation’s livelihood and survival, like climate change.

When students have to protest their schools, along with politicians, corporations, and other power structures, problems ensue. For one, many students who wish to attend the protest will not hear about it because it has been barred from school-sanctioned communications. Secondly, divisions are created between students who participate in protests and those who do not. After being turned down by more and more students in favor of academic diligence when promoting climate strikes, I began to question my own. I care about school a lot, and it was difficult for me to accept that other students may view a climate strike as just an opportunity to miss school. The idea that only “slacker” students want to participate in walkout activism delegitimizes the worth of the causes students are fighting for. It further suggests that complacency in unjust systems is important to achieving academic excellence and eventually career success.

The solution is not simple. Stuyvesant cannot start excusing absences for every student initiative. If the administration stopped enforcing the mandated attendance policies, students could take advantage of it, and issues with the DOE might arise. None of this situation would be fair for the staff at Stuyvesant, but there is still a path where everyone could win through compromise. The administration might have to determine the legitimacy of activist causes in some cases, but as long as a cause does not violate Stuyvesant’s “intellectual, moral, and humanistic” values, compromise should not be difficult, especially considering that various private and public schools in NYC already provide a model. Administrators may fear that a policy change will lead to an unmanageable amount of strikes, but in my experience, students care too much about their academic performance to miss school unless the situation is urgent. If no amendments or bends of the attendance policy, such as being marked “absent for a strike,” can be made, Stuyvesant could still alert teachers of the date ahead of time so that they can plan around it. Promotion of the event could be facilitated through Stuyvesant’s regular channels, like the Weekly Update, morning announcements, and Mr. Blumm’s Opportunities Bulletin.

The climate crisis is in progress, and while Stuyvesant prepares and uplifts students who will go on to make huge impacts on our world and possibly innovate solutions, it ignores the impact we could be making as a school right now. Simply teaching about the science of the climate crisis and having an environmental club is not enough. Stuyvesant needs to help students preserve the future that we study for in class. I urge Stuyvesant students to get involved in student activism and for the administration to support our endeavors. Maybe during the next climate strike, we can beat Bronx Science.