POLITICAL ANIMALS: Why high schoolers didn’t walk out on March 14
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In “Politics,” a work of political philosophy, Aristotle said that man is a “political animal,” indicating that humans derive their identity and character from being involved in their communities. (The word “politics” comes from the word for a Greek city state, “polis.”) This story is the third in a series of four covering political issues in the classroom.
Following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, students around the U.S. took up the cause of demanding tougher gun laws from the federal government. From 10 to 10:17 a.m. on March 14, millions walked out of their classes in protest.
At Country Day, some students took part in a sit-in as opposed to a walkout, gathering in the Matthews Library for the 17 minutes. Every minute, juniors Gabi Alvarado and Yanele Ledesma and senior Esme Bruce-Romo read the name, age and grade or teaching position of each of the Parkland victims.
In a March 13 poll of 108 high schoolers, 60 percent said they planned to walk out. And about two-thirds of those (60 percent) said that they were memorializing the victims and/or protesting gun laws.
However, head of school Lee Thomsen said he viewed the sit-in as a way to acknowledge that school safety is important.
The distinction, he said, is in what the school does and the students do.
“We want to create a culture where as a student body, as a school community, you can have differences of opinion,” he said.
“Students are entitled to their opinions, and it’s not for me – not for us – to say, ‘You can’t have partisan opinions.’”
Thomsen talked to high schoolers about distinguishing between the school’s intent and students’ intent at morning meeting on March 5. He clarified that while the faculty and administration do support school safety, they strive to abstain from taking partisan positions, whereas students are welcome to do so.
Thomsen said this policy is inclusivity, though head of high school Brooke Wells added that Country Day is actually required to maintain a nonpartisan stance because of its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which Thomsen said is dictated by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service).
“We cannot campaign or advocate for any particular party or candidate,” Wells said. “That’s critical to a nonprofit’s status. For example, although it would have been interesting, we (weren’t able) to have sheriff candidate Scott Jones come and speak during his campaign season because the school would have been supporting a particular political candidate.”
Wells defined a partisan act as supporting a specific candidate or party but a political point of view as something anyone could have, regardless of party affiliation.
“You could see our mission statement as a political statement,” he said. “It says we are inclusive – that we don’t discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. There are politics behind those kind of statements, but there’s no political party against equity.”
While the school stands for equal rights, inclusivity and gender rights, it does not take a partisan position, Wells said.
Simply put, he added, the root of “partisan” is “party” while the root of “political” is “people.”
Making this distinction in order to maintain the school’s nonprofit status is very important, according to Thomsen.
“As a nonprofit, Country Day doesn’t have to pay taxes on income,” he said. “(We) typically (can) get a lower interest rate on loans. There are all sorts of legal and financial benefits.”
And these benefits are crucial to Country Day staying in business.
“If (we were to lose our nonprofit status), we could potentially shut down,” Thomsen said.
When the administration was deciding how to respond to the shooting, Thomsen said they were in frequent contact with CAIS (California Association of Independent Schools) and NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools).
“They have teams of lawyers who tell you what you can do or can’t do and can say or can’t say,” Thomsen said.
According to Wells, the SCDS sit-in following the events of the Parkland shooting was simply “a group of people mourning a series of tragedies and calling attention to it.”
“I didn’t see it as (something) political or partisan,” he said. “I saw it as (acknowledging) human suffering. We (might) have done a similar thing after 9/11 happened.
“I think the political and possibly partisan piece of it is that it happened between 10 and 10:17, but that wasn’t us – that was America. What we did was something different from (that national decision) – better than that. Like a healing, coming together. Not a blaming.”
Bruce-Romo agreed, adding that she, Ledesma and Alvarado wanted all students to be able to participate in the sit-in no matter their political stance.
“The goal of the event was to show solidarity and support for the victims and survivors of the shooting,” she said.
However, Alvarado said that, for her, the sit-in represented a memorial for the students who were killed and a protest against gun violence.
“We (were) holding the sit-in for the victims,” she said. “But there’s also something to be said (for the fact that) no one wants to be in a situation like that. No one wants teachers or educators to be put in a position where they are armed or have to defend their students.
“I think that’s a very partisan issue.”
Distinguishing between the school’s actions and students’ actions, both Wells and Thomsen said they wouldn’t have punished any students who walked out – though many schools across the country took disciplinary action against students who did so, ranging from unexcused absences to suspensions.
“I wouldn’t take action against respectful, kind free speech,” Wells said.
“I want (SCDS) students to say what they think about things and become the kind of people who change the world for what they want.”
“No one (would have been) charged for an unexcused absence because they’re exercising their right to civil disobedience,” he said.
It comes back to whether the walkout is driven by the school or by the students and if it can be viewed as a nonpartisan issue.
Alvarado, co-president of the Chicanx Latinx Student Union, said she had approached Thomsen the morning following President Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 about staging a walkout to protest harmful stereotypes and violence toward people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Alvarado said that though the intent was not to protest the Republican party or Trump himself, that Trump had been condoning the violence and encouraging it at his rallies and speeches made her believe it was crucial for them to take action.
“When you do something that political, you isolate others,” Alvarado said. “(We instead wanted) to stand in solidarity and say that (what was happening) was not okay.”
But Thomsen denied the group’s request, Alvarado said, because he thought it would still come off as taking a partisan stance, though she believes he understood that was not the intent.
“I was really hurt by (Thomsen) saying that (the school) was going to condone a walkout against gun violence (now),” she said.
“I totally think that gun violence is horrible, but the fact that (Thomsen) was so adamantly against us doing a walkout last year – I look back and think, ‘We should have walked out anyway.’”
However, Thomsen said the request felt to him like “the school was being asked to say, ‘We give you permission,’” for what was, from his perspective, a direct protest of then-President-elect Trump.
“I was asked to sort of bless the event – to say (I) stand behind you; (I) support this,” Thomsen said.
“If you’re saying, ‘Not my president!’ when, as a democracy, we’ve elected somebody – I said I (was) reluctant to do that because it felt very partisan.”
Thomsen did concede that he and Alvarado might have discordant accounts of the event.
“(We may differ) in how we remember (it) – the lens through which I heard it being asked versus what she may have thought she was asking,” he said.
On the whole, Thomsen emphasized that you can “split hairs” with the issue of a partisan stance, which is why the school is so careful.
“Every situation is going to have nuances,” Thomsen said. “But we want to be able to work with (the students, and) we want to be supportive of student voices.”
—By Sahej Claire
Originally published in the April 10 edition of the Octagon.