Seattle Public Schools won’t be excusing absences for students who miss school to participate in the Global Climate Strike on Friday, district superintendent Denise Juneau wrote in a letter sent to Seattle City Council members.
Juneau wrote the Tuesday letter in response to a resolution the council passed on Monday, urging the district to not penalize students for leaving school that day and to give them opportunities to make up missed work. Kshama Sawant, the resolution’s primary sponsor, also wrote to Juneau asking her to excuse students from school — a move that New York City’s public schools announced this week before the walkout.
While the district recognizes the “urgency of making change to protect the climate and our collective future,” protests don’t fall under the state’s guidelines for excused absences, Juneau wrote.
She also pointed to language in the resolution that “affirms” city employees’ rights to request an unpaid day off in order to participate.
“Unpaid leave seems to be a very similar consequence as an unexcused absence,” she wrote.
Apart from authorizing funds for the city’s education levy, which supplies money for preschools and extra resources, the City Council has no authority over operations or educational policies set by the school district, which has a seven-member governing board. But that hasn’t deterred council members from speaking up about the district. Sawant regularly appears at School Board meetings and student protests.
“In the future, should you have issues that you would like Seattle Public Schools to address, please drop me a note prior to passing legislation so we can have a discussion about your concerns,” Juneau wrote. “It might help for you to understand our perspective and limitations before you publicly pass resolutions. I know I would appreciate a heads-up.”
A survey released this week estimates a quarter of American youth have participated in walkouts or taken personal action on climate change. Students in Seattle participating in the walkout on Friday will walk to City Hall after meeting in Cal Anderson Park at 9 a.m.
The Seattle Times was not able to reach a City Council spokesperson for comment on Tuesday evening.
Here is the full text of Juneau’s letter, which was also sent to Mayor Jenny Durkan:
Thank you for the advocacy to address climate change. As you know, community activism has always been a deeply held value in Seattle and in our public schools. At Seattle Public Schools, we always honor students’ constitutional right to freedom of expression and the important role young people can have in addressing issues that affect us all. In fact, our Board has a policy (Freedom of Assembly) that acknowledges this commitment.
While we support our students’ First Amendment right to peacefully protest and recognize the urgency of making change to protect the climate and our collective future, when civic engagement includes missing class (i.e. participation in a walkout), there are standardized consequences. “Civil disobedience”, by its very definition, takes that into account. I notice your resolution also takes that into account by allowing city employees to take unpaid leave for a day of conscience. Unpaid leave seems to be a very similar consequence as an unexcused absence.
We are proud of our students’ abilities to organize actions on issues they deem important. They continue to exercise their rights in numerous visible ways including participation in sit-ins, walkouts, taking a knee at athletic events and marches. Our role as educators is to provide an environment in which students are supported in the development of their opinions, ideas and their personal role in our democracy.
Seattle Public Schools will not attempt to prevent students from participation in this event, but we cannot excuse the absence from school, as it does not meet the criteria of an excused absence as defined by state law or board policy and procedure. For more information on our strong support for student civic engagement and protest, please see: www.seattleschools.org/district/district_quick_facts/initiatives/student_rights
Again, thank you for your advocacy to address climate justice. I hope you continue to do so through city-related actions like approving more bike lanes, safe pedestrian routes, affordable housing, etc. In the future, should you have issues that you would like Seattle Public Schools to address, please drop me a note prior to passing legislation so we can have a discussion about your concerns. It might help for you to understand our perspective and limitations before you publicly pass resolutions. I know I would appreciate a heads-up.