Hundreds of students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District walked out of class Tuesday morning to protest recent actions by the local school board — including the removal of the student representative from the board and the removal of books from libraries for review.
Organizers of the protest say students at seven Mat-Su high schools walked out.
At Career Tech High School in Wasilla, about 150 students left class at 10 a.m. They gathered around the flagpole, holding signs demanding the school board listen and chanting “give us back our voice, we should have a choice.”
Juniors Riley Flinn and Lily Shea organized the protest at Career Tech, and other schools quickly organized their own walkouts. Protests at Colony, Palmer and Wasilla high schools each exceeded 100 students, and organizers say that some students as far north as Fairbanks also joined the protest in solidarity. Students said they oppose school board actions that limit the voice and rights of students in Mat-Su schools.
“I’m proud of every student who showed up today and feels that this is important enough to skip a class,” said Shea, who missed her AP Chemistry class to lead the protest. “Skipping a class is a big deal. I don’t ever do it because I’m scared of what I might miss, but I’m proud that so many kids are so invested in what’s happening and they understand that this is a big deal.”
The specific school board decisions that students protested include the removal of the student representative from the board despite public opposition, and the subsequent investigations directed by the board into students and staff who objected to the measure. The board is also requiring additional credits to graduate beyond the state standard, and it has hand-picked an advisory committee to review 56 challenged books — some that are used in curriculum across the district.
Students stood outside of their schools for 56 minutes as a nod to the number of books that are under review by the Library Citizens Advisory Committee. The 56 books were removed from school libraries last spring, before the committee had begun to debate which should be removed from which schools.
Flinn, one of the student organizers of the protest at Career Tech, noted that while the previous process to challenge books included student input, the current committee does not.
Shea, the other organizer, said it’s important for voters and school board members to know how the students feel. The students staged the protest just a week before the local Mat-Su election. Two school board seats are on the ballot next Tuesday.
“We’re not backing down even after this election happens,” Shea said. “We will still hold our next school board or the current school board to the same standard, and we feel like our voices deserve to be heard. We are the largest stakeholders in their decisions so we deserve a say and we and that’s the message that we’re hoping to spread today.”
Ben Kolendo is the Student Advisory Board Representative whose role on the school board was diminished in September. Kolendo is 18 and — unlike many of the students who protested with him — will be able to vote next week.
“Local elections are the most important ones and right now, this is students saying that we think this election is more important than usual,” Kolendo said.
Students passed out hand warmers and donut holes during the walkout. A few cars drove through the parking lot and honked at the students, evoking raucous cheers.
The principal at Career Tech declined to comment on the walkout.