Thousands of students march down Market Street to participate in the global Youth Climate Strike on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Climate strike organizers say SFUSD blocked student participation

The organizers behind Friday’s Climate Strike in San Francisco are accusing the San Francisco Unified School District of withdrawing its support for the strike by prohibiting field-trips in which teachers had planned to accompany younger students to the demonstration.

The strike drew thousands of young people into the streets of San Francisco to call for urgent action on climate change, and was part of an international, youth-led day of action. A similar day of global action was held in March.

In line with its current policy, the SFUSD did not grant excused absences to students wishing to participate in Friday’s strike, forcing students to skip school and be marked as absent. Organizers with Youth vs. Apocalypse, a youth-led group of climate justice advocates, say the district further stifled the students’ activism by cancelling pre-approved, optional field trips scheduled in support of the strike.

“Some teachers had independently organized optional field trips, because Elementary and Middle School students can’t do the walk out safely alone and some teachers [planned] to walk out with them,” said Carolyn Clara, an organizer with Youth Vs. Apocalypse.

Clara said the district’s Sustainability Office had sent a message suggesting ways in which teachers could support the strike in and out of the classroom.

That message was followed by an email from SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews prohibiting teachers from taking students to participate in the strike and encouraging them to instead focus on addressing climate change in the classroom on Friday.

“Staff members are not authorized to take students on a field trip to a public march, rally or demonstration during the school day. It is our obligation to keep students safe at all times while in our care,” Matthews wrote. “We can develop our students’ ability to take action on issues that impact them without compromising student safety.”

Matthews noted that students could choose to not attend school that day, but would be counted as absent and have their parents notified.

“Existing field trips that went through the normal channels of approval were suddenly cancelled,” Clara said.

Clara added that this directive effectively blocked disadvantaged students from participating in in what she described as a “safe and positive” march.

“The issue is the district’s position is that parents can take their kids to the strike, but not teachers,” said Clara. “But as we know, that gives unequal opportunities to kids whose families don’t have the financial flexibility or literacy to do that, It looks like only the privileged kids can [participate].”

Miguel, a senior at Mission High School, was among a group of some 30 students who joined the strike on Friday. He said that he felt the district’s stance on the climate strike was harsher than for previous political actions in which students participated, like a recent walkout in which students called for stricter gun control laws following the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

He said his teachers were discouraged from talking about the strike or promoting it in their classrooms.

“For the gun protest, and the Trump protest, the district seemed supportive of students walking out. They were giving us information of how to go about it. For this one, there was a lot of backlash from the district,” said Miguel. “Our numbers for the walkout weren’t too big because a lot of kids were being stopped by security on campus.”

Rowan, a junior at George Washington High School, said she helped organize the strike and that the school’s principal prohibited her from promoting it in her classes and from handing out flyers.

“It was very frustrating. New York’s school district excused all absences. It was upsetting and angering. I feel like this was a huge, international strike and to hear that other districts are encouraging students to join it was super awesome, and I wish that was the same in SFUSD,” she said.

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said that Matthews and the school board “have not made any statement that was different than our existing policies.” She explained that the staffer in the Sustainability Office who communicated with teachers in the district may have given them the wrong message.

“We appreciate that the climate strike is very important to our students and staff. Given our Sustainability Office’s role in promoting sustainability across the district, with all good intentions and aligned with the focus of that office, a staff member coordinated with an outside community organization to share a message with a select group of educators,” Dudnick wrote in an email.

“That individual was unaware of existing state and district policies as they relate to organizing for field trips, and staff leading political activities,” she said.

Referencing the district’s current policies, Dudnick said that student activism, including their right to protest peacefully, is supported.

“Our students have exercised this right in numerous visible ways including participation in sit-ins, walkouts, taking a knee at athletic events, and marches,” Dudnick said.

However, citing safety concerns, Dudnick said that district staff “is not authorized to lead students in a walkout,” and that demonstrations “do not constitute an authorized field trip at any grade level.”

When the district learns about a “planned walkout” or other instances in which students leave campus, district staff coordinates with the San Francisco Police Department to ensure their safety, she said.

“Through this coordinated effort, we are more able to support student safety as they exercise their First Amendment rights,” Dudnick said.

But Clara urged the district’s school board to re-examine the current policies.

“[The district’s] actions prevented the students who had the least chance to express themselves from further expressing themselves with this action,” said Clara. “The students who are most on the frontline and needing to fight for their futures are students who are the youngest and whose parents can’t accompany them.”

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