Schools respond in disparate ways to climate strike 

By: - September 15, 2019 8:35 pm
San Francisco Youth Climate Strike - March 15, 2019

San Francisco Youth Climate Strike, March 15, 2019. (photo by Intothewoods7, Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday, September 20, students in Wisconsin and around the world will walk out of school to protest the lack of action on solving the climate change crisis. Rallies are planned for Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Appleton, Eau Claire and Ashland. In Madison, students will march to the Capitol. In Milwaukee, the rally will be held at City Hall.

Last March, a similar climate strike was held worldwide. Students from Milwaukee High School of Languages staged a climate change walkout without permission from school officials. One student commandeered the school’s public address system to announce the walkout. Milwaukee Public Radio reported that local school officials stated some students would be reprimanded; perhaps student organizers would be marked absent.

In scattered reports from around the world, some school officials punished students for skipping school for these walkouts. Punishments in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia ranged from simply marking students absent to giving students a zero on tests taken that day, to afterhours detentions.

This time the number of rallies on climate change are likely to be more numerous with increasing numbers of students striking on September 20. How school officials will react is an open question.

Complicating the issue in Wisconsin is that September 20 is the third Friday count—the day all school districts are to count the number of students in attendance to help determine each school’s level of state aid. 

It is a common belief that, if students are not in attendance for the third Friday count, they must attend the day before and the day after, says Benson Gardner, communication officer for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. That is not the case. Gardner says students only need to attend school at least one day a few days before the third Friday count and another day after. The exact days right before and after are not important. Virtually all students involved in the strike will ultimately be counted, but the strike does complicate the count for districts.

Bob Peterson of the Milwaukee School Board has been working with Milwaukee Superintendent Keith Posley to make the issue of climate change part of the curriculum. Some students, along with their teachers, are attending the downtown rally on a field trip. Teachers are receiving information on climate change that they can incorporate into their lesson plans on the 20th..  “We need much more attention paid to climate justice issues throughout the entire curriculum,” says Peterson.

Cassie Steiner of the Sierra Club, which is a co-sponsor of the rally in Madison, says event organizers are well aware of the third Friday count. That is why student activities are scheduled to start in early afternoon, allowing students to attend classes in the morning and be counted for attendance. 

Gardner confirms that, so long as students attend school for part of the day, they will be counted for enrollment on the third Friday.

How will other school districts react when students skip school? Will students be suspended or just be marked absent? Or will school districts even support students for their civic involvement? Appleton stated they had no response at this time, but if they did, they would put it on their website. La Crosse and Ashland school districts did not respond even after repeated phone calls. A rally in Eau Claire was just added in the last few days so it is understandable they may be still formulating their policy.

Inspiration for the strikes comes from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who starting skipping school to sit on the steps outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign proclaiming “School Strike for Climate.” She turned this into a weekly protest, leaving school each Friday and talking to anyone would listen. She was soon joined by other students from around the world. Her Twitter account now has well over half a million followers.

The Climate Strike movement spreading worldwide is not an army with a well-defined command structure. 

Greta didn’t ask school officials for permission to stage her weekly Friday protest. Nor have the thousands of student activists who have joined this movement. Confronting authority, challenging authority, defying authority is a hallmark of the movement. But this year, Wisconsin student organizers are trying to work more closely with school officials.

Max Prestigiacomo is a freshman at UW-Madison and executive director of the Wisconsin Climate Action Team. His organization is taking a prominent role in the climate strike. Last year there were over a thousand students who participated in the Madison rally, says Prestigiacomo. This year there will be many more. Beyond just the five major rallies, he expects schools will strike across the state. “Young people are leading the movement,” he says. What he does not want to hear from adults, he adds, is, “You guys are so inspiring” followed by more inaction. 

To the students who are walking out, he says: “We want you to take that and run with it; get friends and family; get everyone involved… any means necessary… We are experiencing the climate crisis NOW.”

The harder question that may face school districts is what happens next if the frequency of climate strikes rises. Greta increased her strikes to every Friday. What happens if students here do the same?

More information on the Global Climate Strike is available online and on the Facebook pages for strikes in particular communities.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.