Student Activism at AHS

 

By Ellie Crowley

Since the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, the nation has been fraught with vast political division. This division has ignited a flame within the majority of citizens to exercise their right to freedom of speech in both support and protest of actions taken by the president. However, the controversial policies have also inspired a large majority of America’s youth to take a stand and make their adolescent voices heard. This past year, the AHS student body has embodied this rise of youth protest and created a new culture of student activism in the school’s community.

At the beginning of the school year, the community participated in the Unity Project. Drama teacher Michael Byrne first discovered the project on Facebook and proposed that the school implement its own version. The Unity Project was initially created by two women in an attempt to combat the division in their community as a result of the election. Byrne, along with math teacher Joanna Begin, applied for a grant from the Arlington Education Foundation and received funding for the project by the Dawn Moses Memorial Grant.

The project consisted of 32 PVC pipes circled around one central pipe located on the front lawn. Each of the outer poles had an identifier on it, and students were invited to wrap pink yarn from the center pole around each pole that they identified with, with the end result being a woven ceiling around the circle, representing the unity of the AHS community and a celebration of diversity.

If students felt an identifier relevant to their lives was missing, they were invited to add it to a board on the side of the installation. The board was quickly filled, and students began to write their identifiers on the pavement in chalk. Throughout the week, teachers chose to take  their classes out to the project. Students visited it during their free periods, after school, and during advisories.

The installation was also used as a setting to hold events that further unified the AHS community. During the week, the Do Something club held a bake sale to raise money for hurricane relief after the then recent devastation in Puerto Rico. At the end of the week, a rainstorm caused the structure to collapse, but that did not stop the community from appreciating its message. The next day, the Madrigal Singers used the project as a stage for an after-school performance, and on the weekend the Arlington community showed its support for the installation by holding yoga and CrossFit classes next to the fallen project.

The Unity Project set a precedent of acceptance and support for the diversity of the AHS community. This environment provided students with the support they needed to exercise their voice in protests later in the year.

Since the death of 17 students in the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, there has been a national uproar calling for gun control. That the majority of protests are student-led reveals the effect this tragedy has had on America’s youth.

The AHS student body was no different and participated in a protest on March 7th for gun control. The protest was organized by the Young Democrats and took place at schools in neighboring towns as well. Students who chose to participate left their first period classes at 8:17 am and gathered on the front lawn of the high school. Griffin Gould, president of the Young Democrats, led a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Parkland shooting.

Following the moment of silence was a speech by senior Ian Miller, who read the lyrics to “You’re Missing” by Bruce Springsteen. The song outlines how it feels to lose a loved one, as the friends and families of the 17 students in Parkland have. Gould then invited the protesters to join the Young Democrats and participate in a state-wide protest outside of the state house on March 14th.

Despite the snow day on the date of the state house visit, 26 AHS students still gathered outside to rally for advocacy training and stronger gun control laws. Specifically, students were lobbying for the passing of bill H.3610 and the repeal of the Dickey Amendment. Bill H.3610 proposes temporarily preventing access to firearms for extremely dangerous or suicidal individuals. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Students gathered outside of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and began their march to the state house, participating in chants for gun control along the way. When students were settled in the state house, state representatives each spoke and expressed their stance on both bill H.3610 and the Dickey Amendment. Following the speeches, students were invited to meet with their representatives and ask for their support and votes in passing bill H.3610 and the repealment of the Dickey Amendment. The state house visit provided Massachusetts youth with a direct means of communication with their representatives and the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Following the shooting at their high school, the Parkland students created the movement dubbed #NeverAgain and organized a national walkout for gun control to take place at 10:00 am on March 14th. The AHS student body, having participated in their own walkout on March 7th, wanted to participate in the national walkout as well. The AHS Student Council met on February 27th with principal Dr. Janger to ensure that students who participated in the walkout would not receive disciplinary actions and to begin planning the logistics of the protest, as they anticipated a much larger group than that on March 7th.

So as not to interfere with the school’s Inclusion Day, Dr. Janger scheduled a free block at the time of the walkout so that students would not have to choose between their workshops and the walkout. As the date of the walkout approached, students began to prepare by making posters and signs in the art classroom after school, the largest of which was an orange sign that read “#NeverAgain” in large black lettering and was hung right outside of the front doors of the school on March 14th.

Unfortunately, due to the snow day the walkout was rescheduled for March 15th. Because the walkout was no longer scheduled for Inclusion Day, students now walked out of class instead of a free block. At 10:00 am on March 15th, AHS students filed out of class and gathered at the front of the school, as they had done the week before. The protest was composed of chants, speeches by various AHS students and faculty, and a moment of silence for the victims of the Parkland shooting. As the seventeen minutes came to a close, students returned to their classes and continued with their school day.

The AHS community held a diverse range of views about the walkout. Junior Harjot Singh stated, “The walkout is a complete waste of time, and I agree that some things need to change but having a bunch of kids walk out of school is not going to bring this change.”

History teacher Scott Matson agreed with Singh’s opinion, saying “I do not think [the walkouts] are going to be very effective. In my opinion, a majority of the students around the country don’t even realize what they are doing… they are just following what social media is telling them to do.” History teacher Glen Fant made sure that his students recognized the significance of their actions by giving those who walked out lower participation grades for an in-class assignment that day. Fant explained that “I told the class that I was doing so because I didn’t want to cheapen an act of civil disobedience by making it completely free from consequence.” He continued to reflect on acts of civil disobedience by Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, explaining that their peaceful protests were condemned but that it gave their purpose more strength and meaning. Still, many AHS students and faculty did choose to participate in the walkout. Junior Isa Dray, an organizer of the walkout on March 15th, explains that “I think it is really important that we have stricter background checks, raise the legal age for gun purchase to 21 and repeal the Dickey Amendment.” Freshman Milo Kiely-Song explained that he “decided to walk out because [he] absolutely believe[s] that stricter gun regulations are necessary to make our country and our schools safer.” Though not all of AHS participated in the walkout, those who chose to not partake in the event still respected those who did—yet another representation of the inclusive and unified environment at the high school. Participating students proved to the nation that their voices deserved to be heard and that they will not rest until stronger gun control is enacted.

More recently, students at AHS have responded to a major incident of vandalism at the school. On the night of Tuesday May 2nd, a group of young males broke into the school and shattered windows, smashed art display cases, discharged fire extinguishers, destroyed cafeteria tables, and smeared various condiments around school property. Additionally, the intruders spray-painted three messages of hate on the outside wall of the school, consisting of two homophobic slurs and a swastika on a trash barrel.

Many students were surprised that such hate was present in a community they thought was safe and welcoming. The school first responded to the incident by holding an assembly organized by the Junior Class Council, in which all student leaders stood as a unified wall in front of the rest of the student body. Dr. Janger, as well as junior class officers, condemned the acts of vandalism but inspired the student body to stand up for the school, to foster what the community wants: a culture of positivity and inclusivity. Following the assembly, students were invited to write positive messages in chalk on the front of the school, such as “Hate has no home here” and “You are loved.”

Members of the senior class, which the majority of vandals belonged to, were disappointed with the actions that would now shape their legacy at the school, and wanted to give back to the community. Senior Olivia Weiss organized a GoFundMe page to raise money to restore the damage inflicted by the vandalism. Dr. Janger, in a recent email, explained that he will be meeting with members of the senior class to discuss the best use for the funds in order to “repair the harm to our community and restore our sense of safety and unity.” Additionally, senior Ian Miller spoke on behalf of the senior class at the school-wide assembly about vandalism, and expressed their disapproval of the event and disappointment in those who vandalized. The unified backlash by nearly all AHS students against the vandalism exemplifies the activist voice that students have found in the past year.

The inclusive and united environment that the school has worked to establish this year has made students comfortable with expressing their political views and has created an activist culture in the student body.

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