Patti Bacchus: School boards must support climate-striking students

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      No one has more at stake in the federal election than children and youth, yet they don’t get to vote. What a lot of them will be doing instead is participating in climate-strike rallies, including one at Vancouver City Hall on September 27 at 1 p.m.

      They want political leaders to put climate action and environmental sustainability at the forefront of their political platforms, to treat climate as the emergency it is, and to come up with plans to establish hard targets and strategies to limit global warming.

      New Westminster Secondary student Jade Bouchard told me this week it breaks her heart when she hears teens saying they’ve lost hope and that they’re all doomed. Josh Harris, a Grade 12 student at Vancouver’s Magee Secondary who is the incoming student trustee at the Vancouver School Board (VSB), says the climate crisis is, literally, a matter of life and death for his generation and that it’s a “monumental” issue for every student he knows.

      Bouchard and Harris will both be participating in next Friday’s climate strike.

      Youths' voices are pure, without conflicted agendas

      Like many, I despair of the mess my baby-boom generation has made of the planet and what it means for my children’s futures and everyone else’s kids’ and grandkids’ lives. Students like Bouchard, Harris, and remarkable Swedish teen Greta Thunberg—who started the growing climate-strike movement last year—give me hope. I wish I could say I felt the same about our local political leaders.


      Thunberg is demonstrating the courageous and bold leadership the world desperately needs, while elected leaders buy pipelines and take mealy-mouthed approaches to the climate crisis, by supporting things like fracking so they don’t upset supporters and donors.

      Youth don’t have a conflicted agenda. They’re not weighing the value of their investment portfolios, their electoral chances, or their paycheques against the bold and innovative action that’s necessary to change the dangerous course we’re on.

      Youths’ agenda is to have a future, for themselves and the planet. That’s it. Their voices are pure.

      Harris was elected by VSB student-council leaders to serve a one-year term as the sole student trustee. He will be sitting at the board table with the elected trustees this year and participating in debates and representing students’ voices in decision-making.

      Harris says he feels supported by the VSB in terms of getting information out to schools, and when asked, he diplomatically told me he “wouldn’t be opposed” to the VSB issuing a clear statement supporting student involvement in the climate strike.

      Schools should support student leadership on climate crisis

      Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo says schools must let students participate in climate strikes. They should go beyond that and do everything they can to support and encourage students’ participation and leadership on the climate crisis.

      As a VSB trustee, I learned that many newcomer parents are nervous about their kids participating in public events that are even remotely political. That’s understandable if they’ve come from countries with authoritarian governments that don’t take kindly to citizens speaking out. A proactive message of support from school authorities would go a long way in reassuring parents that its safe for their kids to participate in peaceful protests that are part of a healthy democracy.


      One of the most memorable experiences I have from elementary school was attending the Amchitka Blast protest in Vancouver. I went with a group from my class, with permission from my school and my parents. It was an educational, inspiring, and empowering experience that had a huge impact on me. I have no doubt that participating in the climate strike will be the same for many students.

      The clock is ticking on the climate crisis

      If we and our political leaders don’t have the guts to take the necessary steps to tackle the climate crisis while there’s still time—and scientists warn us that the clock is ticking down quickly—then we need to at least support the student-led climate-action movement.

      School boards need to step up and follow the lead of New York City's public schools, which took a proactive and public stance last week by tweeting that they will be excusing “absences of students participating in the #Climate Strike”. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio also tweeted that the school district would be sharing “guidance” with parents, educators, and students about how to participate in the event.

      Aside from the progressive New Westminster School Board, which passed a committee motion on September 17 supporting student participation in the September 27 climate strike, the silence from those elected to govern our B.C. school boards is deafening. And disgraceful.

      The New West motion, submitted by its chair, Mark Gifford, says the board will excuse the attendance of students attending the strike as long as they have their parents’ permission and that students won’t be penalized for missing classes to participate in lawful climate-strike activities.

      I emailed several other B.C. school board chairs this week to see if they were taking similar proactive measures to support student participation.

      Victoria School Board chair Jordan Watters told me she would be speaking at the Victoria event and that’s it’s a professional day for students in her district (so no issues around excusing absences). That’s good.

      Some large school boards won't even talk about plans

      But all students need support from their elected boards. I was disappointed that large boards like Surrey and Richmond wouldn’t even respond to questions about what they are doing to support their students.

      You’d think VSB chair Janet Fraser, who was elected under the Green Party banner, would be right out in front on an issue like this (I sure as heck would have been if I was still in the chair). You’d be wrong.


      I emailed Fraser last Saturday to ask what the VSB is doing to support students and didn’t get any response until I texted her on Tuesday. She emailed back to say she’d asked the staff “communications team to handle this inquiry”, as if it were some minor operational issue. That’s not what leadership looks like and isn’t how it responds. Shame on you Ms. Fraser. Students deserve better from the adults elected to leadership positions.

      The response I got from someone at the VSB using its official communications email address (good grief, they neither signed the message nor identified themselves, which is…odd), said: “School is in attendance for those days, unless the school is holding a Professional Development Day (non-instructional day) and attendance will be taken as usual.”

      The VSB’s communications department also wouldn’t provide contact information for its incoming trustee—Josh Harris—so I could interview him for this column, saying he wasn’t being sworn in until next week (I reached him through other channels). Instead of supporting and amplifying the student voice, the VSB is stifling it.

      As the VSB’s longest-serving board chair—one who was proud the district was seen as a leader on progressive and student-voice issues—I’m appalled and deeply disappointed at the direction it has gone during the past couple of years.

      Sorry Vancouver, Richmond, and Surrey kids, you’re on your own in this fight

      Vision Vancouver VSB trustee Allan Wong, who is also the VSB’s vice chair, is submitting a motion to his board—to be considered at its regular scheduled meeting next week—asking it to come out in support of student participation in next week’s climate strike.

      It’s too bad the VSB didn’t see the issue as important enough to call a special meeting sooner to send a strong and proactive message, like New York and New Westminster did. Better late than never, I guess. Let’s hope Wong’s colleagues agree.

      Teachers are taking the lead in supporting students

      B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) President Teri Mooring told me the union recognizes the importance of the issue and support youth who are leading the way.

      The BCTF issued a statement this week urging school boards to excuse absences for students attending climate strikes. Mooring said some teachers have sought parental permission to attend similar rallies as a field trip in the past and that she expects that may happen again.

      The Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association has taken a similarly proactive and supportive stance, including posting a statement on student climate strikes and how teachers can support them. Good on them.

      Students need support from school boards—and all of us

      When I chaired the VSB, we created the student trustee positon to ensure students had a voice in decision-making and governance. It’s one of the best things we did, and every student trustee elected so far has brought an articulate, informed, and constructive voice to the board table.

      Vancouver School Board
      Martin Dunphy

      We also included student representatives on all VSB standing and advisory committees and took their input seriously. I was invariably impressed with how thoughtful and relevant their advice was and thought about how much better things might be if we let students run the system.

      It’s time for those of us whose generation made the mess we’re in to listen to youth and support their work. We need to recognize leaders like Greta Thunberg and stand with her. We need to support local groups like the Vancouver Sustainabiliteens, who organize local youth to demand action on the climate crisis.

      We need to speak out—like New York's public schools and Gifford’s New West board—to send a proactive message that we support and respect young climate-action leaders and those participating in events like the climate strikes.

      Students today have to live with the decisions that get made—or don’t get made—today. They can’t vote, but we can. Elected leaders, from school boards right up to the federal government (and all of us, for that matter) need to support the youth-led climate movement. It’s the least we can do.

      As Josh says, it’s a matter of life and death.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.