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Student protest leaders in Colorado see ripple effects, aim for bigger changes

Students at a multi-school protest in Denver begin to march toward the state capitol.
Students at a multi-school protest in Denver in the fall of 2014 begin to march toward the state capitol.
J. Zubrzycki

Months after the series of student-led protests that rippled through Colorado in late 2014, the teenagers who organized their peers are still pursuing the causes that led them to activism and searching for evidence that their activism has had an effect.

The first protests this fall started in September, when students in Jefferson County raised concerns about potential changes to the district’s curriculum and other policies.

In November, Boulder students staged a walk-out to protest the amount of time spent on standardized tests, especially a new science and social studies assessment for seniors, while seniors across the state, including in nearby Douglas County and the tiny Mancos school district, refused to take their tests.

And in December, students at nearly 30 Denver schools joined protesters around the country who were concerned about police brutality and racial disparities in the wake of the deaths of two unarmed African-American citizens at the hands of police by organizing a variety of walk-outs and rallies.

All in all, hundreds of students at dozens of schools were involved in some form of activism.

Denver Public Schools, law enforcement, and the city’s mayor responded by holding conversations focused on the Denver students’ concerns. Debates about the role of testing have continued to percolate through the state legislature and board as well as through local districts. And Jefferson County’s students have formed a formal group, Jeffco Students for Change, that continues to protest their school board’s decisions.

Below, a few student organizers talk about why protesting seemed like the best approach; whether they think the protests were effective; and what comes next.

If you’d like to hear more from some of the many student activists, come to Chalkbeat’s event at the University of Denver next Wednesday. RSVP here.

Miles Holland, senior, Denver School of the Arts, Denver Public Schools

Issue: Police brutality, racial disparities in school

Action: Helped organize a walk-out at Denver School of the Arts and a multi-school rally at City Park, Denver

What inspired you to protest?

It was really just a bunch of emotion at first. The walk-out was a way that I thought my school was going to stand behind me in expressing this emotion.

The consistency of police inflicting violence on African Americans was mainly what inspired me and what drew me to speak on these things, along with the events of Michael Brown. I was 17 when I led the walk out. And at that time you’re sort of orienting yourself to the world. You get off that leash and start thinking about going into the world, at a time when, being an African-American, it felt like we were going backwards.

Were there conversations about these issues in your school?

That was the thing. There were not conversations, there was not talk about it.

Why did you feel it was important to have a follow-up event that brought goether students from multiple schools?

We wanted to be not so much speaking as a voice from one school, but as different individuals coming together, as a unified voice, as the youth of Denver.

Do you feel the protests were effective?

I feel like it’s been a little brushed aside. I feel like the government, and especially the media, has a way of obscuring it. It’s relevant for a little bit and then it’s done. They look at you, they acknowledge your presence, but they don’t put forward any ideas to really address the issues.

What comes next?

At DSA we’re putting on a play about black history on March 25. There’s also a group in the district that’s talking about what comes next.

Rachel Perley, senior, Fairview High School, Boulder Valley School District

Issue: Too much standardized testing, especially for seniors

Action: Co-organized student walk out

Why protest?

First we wrote an open letter and we thought, people will just say, oh their parents wrote that, they’ll just kind of disregard it.

When we met with Superintendent [Bruce] Messinger, we were talking to him about, what is the feasiblility of having a protest, what risk do students run by participating? Could that be damaging to our district, funding, etc. He said, oh you guys should try a diplomatic approach. He recommended we speak at meetings with the task force.

But we found there was no real avenue and no desire for student input until we said we’re going to take a drastic measure and protest.

Did you feel the protests were effective?

We didn’t want to just protest once and then our point goes away. The intent was to start a conversation, and I think we were successful.

What’s happened since?

There was a panel of students and adults from Dougco, Jeffco, and a few others to discuss what we want to happen. We met with Congressman Jonathan Singer and others to talk about our concerns.

What comes next?

Well, with PARCC coming up, it still messes with our class time, right before Advanced Placement tests. I mean, there’s a certain amount required by federal law, but adding testing on top of that pushes it to the breaking point.

Do you see connections between your protests and other student activism?

We were afraid that some of the protests in Jeffco came across as, oh, their teachers put them up to that. It was important that we didn’t have the reaction, and that people not think that we’re not being lazy, we’re not just opting out.

With Ferguson, it’s maybe the idea of student voice, and how students should have a voice in the way our world works.

Ashlyn Maher, senior, Chatfield High School, Jeffco Public Schools

Issue: Changes to Advanced Placement U.S.. History Curriculum, concerns about school board management

Action: Organized student walk-outs, created blog, staged events at board meetings

What inspired you to protest?

I have been paying attention to the board for a while. As a student I didn’t know what I could do about it until the teacher sick out, and then other students were talking about walk outs. I realized other students cared about this, too. We started a Facebook page, tried to get as many followers as possible – it was pretty fast.

It’s important for our voices to be heard. I know myself and other people at my school have taken AP U.S. History. We learned about the 60s, civil disobedience and how that impacted history. It was in the back of our minds, how it’s important to stand up even if you’re standing alone.

Do you feel your protests were effective?

The board is still making all kinds of changes. It’s clear that we weren’t heard, and we have to continue to find ways to make ourselves heard.

What’s happened since? What comes next?

We have a group called Jeffco Students For Change. There’s also been discussion of getting a recall election going.

…Later this month, we’re having a panel and we invited the board members to join.

Do you feel like there are misconceptions about teenagers and protests?

I do. I feel like when you hear about a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds walking out of school you think, they just want to ditch class. But if you listen to what they’re saying, a lot are walking out for good reasons and they know what they’re doing.

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