Student Voices: MVLA ought excuse absences for student activists

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Mountain View and Los Altos high school students take part in a September global student climate strike. Los Altos High graduate Eric Warmoth argues students should be able to receive excused absences for participating in such protests.

While attending Los Altos High School, I never considered getting involved with politics. I went to class, played water polo and did my homework. I figured I was too busy to worry about issues like climate change.

I graduated from Los Altos High in 2018 and I’m currently a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Last February, I founded a campus chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a national youth-driven organization focused on advocating action to combat the climate crisis. We attended the Global Climate Strike Sept. 20 and led more than 100 students from the Claremont Colleges.

Public high schools have untapped potential to play a role in combating the climate crisis. One simple way to promote civic engagement is by offering students opportunities to participate in global events such as the Sept. 20 strike free of concern about absences or detention.

Public school districts in New York City, Portland, Boston, Chicago, Berkeley and Washington, D.C., all vowed not to penalize students for missing class for the climate strike, as long as their parents gave permission. On the contrary, districts in cities such as Seattle, Philadelphia, Oakland and San Francisco rejected the idea, discouraging many students from participating.

Sending a message

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District joined the districts not supporting climate striking students. Cynthia Greaves, former communications manager for MVLA, told the San Jose Mercury News that while the district “supports the students’ civic rights to participate in the walkout, their absences will not be excused.”

In an email to me, Greaves noted that the district follows the California Education Code, which dictates what qualifies as an excused absence. However, the code also states that “a valid excuse … may include other reasons that are within the discretion of school administrators.”

In San Diego, La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky sent an email to parents informing them how to submit forms granting permission for their children to attend the climate strike. He marched alongside the youth from his high school, saying to the San Diego Union-Tribune that “as adults, allowing them to step forward and lead in these ways is exactly what we hope to do in public education.” Similarly, Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng emailed parents detailing how to excuse their children’s absences if they attended the strike.

Why can’t the Mountain View and Los Altos high school administrators do the same?

Despite receiving an unexcused absence, some local high school students attended a climate strike sponsored by the Los Altos High School Climate Justice Coalition. Marching to downtown Mountain View, approximately 50 Los Altos High students joined eight Mountain View High students to make demands to the Mountain View City Council.

According to Los Altos High senior and climate march organizer Adam Hollingworth, several students did not participate in the strike because they feared the unexcused absence they would receive if they skipped class.

“Implementing policies to excuse absences would send a message to parents, to the government, that the climate crisis is hurting everyone and it’s starting with our youth at school, whose future is at stake,” Hollingworth said.

With increasing youth activism nationwide, our public schools should support student civic engagement. Promoting civic engagement during high school allows young people to get invested in politics and helps inform their beliefs. In 2020, one in 10 eligible voters will be between the ages of 18 and 23, constituting a powerful force in electing the politicians who lead our country.

Eric Warmoth is a Los Altos High graduate who attends Claremont McKenna College.

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