Dawson Barrett, December 27, 2017, Truthout
These teenage rebels have the right idea, but they’ll need a lot more help in the New Year
From the Women’s March to the airport occupations, the Trump era very quickly established itself as one of widespread protest and dissent. Despite having little political capital or economic power, teenagers, as they have been throughout US history, were on the front lines of much of it.
On a wide range of issues, high schoolers across the United States opposed the Trump agenda this year, both directly and in principle. At the end of a bleak political year, here are ten stories about awesome high schoolers who led the charge in 2017:
- Student Journalists in Kansas Hold the Powerful Accountable
Attacking journalists has been one of the most consistent strategies of the Trump administration. In February, Trump called the media “the enemy of the American people.” He and his proxies have regularly referred to accurate, critical news coverage as “fake news,” sometimes simply for quoting the President directly.
Undeterred by this anti-journalist rhetoric, muckraking student reporters at Pittsburg High School’s Booster Redux continued to take seriously their own role as the Fourth Estate. When a new principal was hired at their Kansas school, they investigated her education and employment history—and exposed them as suspect.
Said one high school senior to the Kansas City Star, “She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials.”
After the students’ scoop became a national news story, the principal resigned, and the students were later recognized for their work at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (which Donald Trump, incidentally, declined to attend).
- High School Marching Band Members in Iowa Walk Off the Field
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem to draw attention to American racism and police violence. Athletes at many levels soon echoed his protest by quietly taking a knee or raising a fist. President Trump said the protests were “terrible” and, in September, he called any NFL player who protested a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired.”
Weeks later, before a high school football game, 13 members of the Ames High School marching band in Iowa walked off the field during the “Star Spangled Banner.” Band member Kira Davis told the Des Moines Register that her actions meant, “I stand with people who are feeling persecuted or marginalized by the current president or people in power.”
The many anthem protests by high schoolers in the last year also included football players from Lansing Catholic High School (Lansing, Michigan), Garland High School and Garland Lakeview Centennial High School (both in Garland, Texas), Bellarmine College Prep (San Jose, California), Victory and Praise Christian Academy (Frisco, Texas), and Parkview High School (Lilburn, Georgia).
Cheerleaders at James Logan High School (Union City, California), McCallum High School (Austin, Texas), Niskayuna High School (Niskayuna, New York), Cornell High School (Coraopolis, Pennsylvania), Central High School (Omaha, Nebraska), and many others also engaged in protests.
One protesting teen told National Public Radio, “A lot of people in the school think of cheerleaders as airheads. They think we’re oblivious to what’s going on in the world. But they’re wrong…Here was this small thing I could do to call attention to racism, and not let it go by…I decided to take a knee.”
- Youth Plaintiffs Take the Federal Government to Court Over Climate Change
Before becoming President, Donald Trump called climate change “mythical” and mocked it on cold New York City days (apparently mistaking weather for climate). He has since appointed several climate change deniers to key posts, notably including EPA head Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, both of them major recipients of fossil fuel industry dollars. Trump also appointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that has known about climate change for several decades (and has spent millions of dollars on climate change denial campaigns in the meantime).
To counter government inaction, the environmental organization Our Children’s Trust filed Juliana et al v. United States on behalf of 21 children and young adults from across the US in 2015. Arguing that the plaintiffs have a fundamental right to live in a stable climate, the case challenges the federal government’s policies on climate change and, notably, fossil fuels.
Speaking on the steps of the US Supreme Court this year, one of the plaintiffs, a 16-year-old, explained, “For the last several decades, we have been neglecting the fact that this is the only planet that we have and that the main stakeholders in this issue (of climate change) are the younger generation. Not only are the youth going to be inheriting every problem that we see in the world today—after our politicians have been long gone—but our voices have been neglected from the conversation.”
The case was set to go to trial in early 2018, until fearful fossil fuel lobbyists—and the Trump Administration—intervened in hopes of having the case dismissed.
On December 11, an appeals court will hear their arguments.
- Teens in Massachusetts Call Out TD Garden
Donald Trump has bragged about not paying taxes (“That makes me smart”) and repeated the inaccurate claim that corporations in the US pay the highest taxes in the world—in a year in which the Paradise Papers exposed Nike, Apple, and others for dodging their tax responsibilities.
Trump has also been chastised for not having donated to his own charity since 2008, for profiting from charity events at his golf courses, and for not delivering promised funds he had raised for veterans organizations on the campaign trail. Since becoming President, he has openly benefited financially from his travels (including dozens of taxpayer-funded trips to Trump properties), and he and his family will be major beneficiaries of the new Republican tax law.
Trump may not believe that corporations have responsibilities to their communities, but young people in Boston disagree.
The 1993 terms of public approval for the building of TD Garden, home of the Boston Celtics and Bruins, required the arena to host three fundraisers per year to benefit local recreation programs. In 2017, a group of area teenagers began investigating the agreement and discovered that the Garden had, in fact, hosted zero of the required events. The teens, who were hoping to fund a local skating rink, then prepared a detailed estimate of the arena’s failures to the community, which they valued at $13.8 million.
In the face of the teens’ press conferences and pickets, TD Garden agreed to pay $1.65 million (based on its own much more conservative estimate of the lost revenue) and promised to make good on its public commitments in the future.
- California High School Students Draft “Sanctuary Schools” Policy
As a Presidential candidate, Donald Trump centered his campaign on the demonization of immigrants and refugees, infamously calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and repeatedly promising to build a wall to divide the US and Mexico. As President, he continued to make inaccurate claims about the criminality of immigrant populations and moved to cut funding to cities that refused to devote their local police forces to carrying out his draconian deportation policies.
While Trump bizarrely insisted that “Sanctuary Cities” resulted in “so many needless deaths,” teens in San Francisco countered that students should be able to learn from their teachers without the fear that the President’s “deportation force” might one day storm their schools.
Students from four area high schools worked together to draft a “Sanctuary School” policy for the school district that would prevent schools from demanding the immigration status of their students and urge them to provide training for school counselors on issues impacting immigrant and refugee populations.
Following a student rally, the school board unanimously approved the policy, which mirrors San Francisco’s broader “Sanctuary City” guidelines.
- Teens in Texas Protest Sanctuary Ban
Riding Donald Trump’s xenophobic coattails, officials in Texas passed Senate Bill 4 (SB4), which outlaws “Sanctuary Cities” and “Sanctuary Campuses” by forbidding any locality from preventing its police, district attorneys, and other officials from inquiring into a person’s immigration status (even when they are the victim of a crime)—and by stopping local officials from interfering with federal officials’ attempts to do the same. The law further undermines the will of local government by threatening to remove from office and fine any sheriff or police chief who refuses to act as part of Trump’s “deportation force.”
In July, fifteen young women in brightly colored quinceañera dresses took to the capitol steps in Austin to protest the law.
“We are here to take a stand against Senate Bill 4, the most discriminatory and hateful law in recent history…SB4 is not only an attack on immigrant communities. It threatens the lives of all people of color,” said one 17-year-old protester.
The teens danced, gave speeches, and delivered flowers to Texas legislators who had voted against the law.
Legal challenges to SB4 are ongoing.
- New York High School Students Walk Out Against Trump’s Muslim Ban
In January, President Trump issued his “Muslim ban,” halting the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days, and blocking refugees from Syria from entering the country indefinitely. In response, people all over the US immediately swarmed the country’s airports in protest.
A few days later, hundreds of New York City students from several different high schools walked out of class—some despite school memos to their parents discouraging it—to join a rally against the travel ban in Foley Square.
They carried signs reading “No Human Is Illegal,” “No Ban, No Wall,” and “Refugees are Welcome.” They yelled chants against white supremacy, against Donald Trump, and in solidarity with the city’s immigrant population.
Said one 16-year-old, “We’re the future.”
- Florida High School Students Support Their Teachers
After promising, as a candidate, to slash away at the Department of Education’s budget, Donald Trump devoted his administration to undermining public schools through vouchers and charter schools. He appointed Betsy DeVos, an unabashed opponent of public education with no relevant qualifications, as Secretary of Education, and he supported a tax bill that cynically eliminates a deduction for school teachers who purchase classroom supplies with their own money.
High school students in Hillsborough, Florida, however, offered a different take on their teachers and schools. When the local school board announced that it would not deliver on raises for teachers that were promised in 2013 and that it was considering four new charter schools, hundreds of students—from eight different high schools—walked out of class to protest in support of their teachers.
They carried signs reading, “#Praise the Raise,” “Students Say Teachers Deserve Their Pay!” and “Dig Deeper, Pay My Teacher.”
Their teachers, meanwhile, engaged in a week-long “work to the rules” protest and rallied outside of a school board meeting wearing shirts emblazoned with slogans, such as “I Prepare Students for Life” and “Stand Up for Public Education.”
The negotiations with the school board are ongoing.
- Students in Maine Rally Against Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry
Despite waiving a rainbow flag during a campaign event, as President, Donald Trump has been consistently hostile to LGBTQ Americans. He immediately revoked Obama administration policies protecting the right of transgender school children to use the restroom, and, in August, he directed the US military not to recruit transgender soldiers or pay for medical treatment for transitioning soldiers. Trump also appointed Roger Severino, a vocal critic of transgender rights and same-sex marriage, to direct the Office of Civil Rights, and expressed support for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was removed as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court (for the second time) for directing Alabama judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
In October, after a gay student at York High School in Maine was harassed and called homophobic slurs by bullies, nearly 200 York High students (and parents) held a rally at the school to express support for their classmate and to demand stronger anti-bullying policies from their principal.
They carried signs reading, “Love Who You Are” and “Love Wins.”
They also carried rainbow flags, though, unlike Donald Trump, they took its message of diversity and equality seriously.
- Teens Nationwide Participate in the Women’s March
Before becoming a Presidential candidate, Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women with impunity and about barging into beauty pageant dressing rooms uninvited. Twenty women have accused Trump of sexual harassment, assault, or related misconduct.
As a Presidential candidate, Trump also dedicated himself to appointing US Supreme Court justices opposed to a woman’s legal right to end her pregnancy.
On January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, as many as four million people in 600 US cities and towns (and 100 more outside of the US) marched in support of women’s rights. High schools students were among them.
More than a dozen young women of color from the San Francisco Unified School District made the trip to Washington, DC for the march. One of them told their local public radio station, “If we really unite, we can make a change, but we have to take it upon ourselves.”
One-third of the student body at the Olney Friends School in Ohio also made the trip to DC.
So did fifty high school students from Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. One told the Providence Journal, “I know what I’m marching for, and I want everyone to hear my voice, and what I’m standing up for. I’m trans…I’m standing for the kids who feel locked up inside and can’t express themselves.”
The Women’s March in Boise, Idaho, meanwhile, was actually coordinated by two high school students.
In California, a high school senior marching in the San Diego march told the Los Angeles Times, “I marched because our 45th president has consistently degraded and disrespected essentially every minority group in America: women, Latinos, Muslims, people of color, people with disabilities, veterans…I’m not willing to sit and watch him continue to channel this discrimination into harmful policies.”
In 2017, American high school students refused to “sit and watch” as principals, school boards, state legislatures, corporations, and the President tried to dictate their future. This list, however, is only a glimpse of what could be in 2018 and beyond.
Donald Trump and his cronies may represent the ideas of dying dinosaurs, but those ideas will not go extinct on their own. The wave of hate crimes that followed Trump’s election victory, for example, also crept into middle schools, high schools, and colleges all over the country.
The fight for the future is on—and the youth are going to need a lot more help.
Dawson Barrett is the author of Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists, from the Little Rock Nine to the Class of Tomorrow (Microcosm Publishing, 2015) and The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal American (New York University Press, 2018).