Shake Up Your School
How Students Can Change Unfair Campus Policies
Your principal thinks it's okay to have a dress code, violating your right to free expression? Your school has a closed campus, confining you even during lunch period, forcing you to buy their overpriced food or else go hungry? Your principal banned a student club, ignoring the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of freedom of association?
You can fight back.
Strategy, Not Just Tactics
The first step in getting the changes you need is to plan out the campaign. An amateur mistake is to just use the first tactic that comes to mind or seems easiest. But if that move doesn't work, you need a Plan B.
It's important to start with the most friendly tactics and then get more confrontational. If you start by rioting in the halls and that doesn't work, it'll be too late to ask politely.
Step 1: Ask
The first step in changing the policy is to politely ask the principal to change it. You may think this is a waste of time, that your principal does not care how the students feel. You may be right about your principal. But this first step is still worthwhile.
First of all, there's a chance that your principal will take your request seriously. If you present thoughtful arguments showing your principal why the school would be better if the policy were changed, he may be persuaded to make a change or at least offer a compromise.
Secondly, if he does not make an effort to redress your grievances, you have just set the stage for a successful campaign. Had you skipped this phase and went straight to a confrontational tactic such as a lawsuit or a protest, that would have enabled the principal to get sympathy (from a judge, from the public, from your fellow students) by saying, "If this student had just asked me, we could have worked it out. But this student is unreasonable."
By showing that you started with a friendly and reasonable approach, you'll have more credibility and more support later when you resort to stronger tactics. This is why Thomas Jefferson , in our Declaration of Independence, made sure to include the line, "In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury." That's why Martin Luther King, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," was sure to point out to his readers, "...Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation."
Cutting Through the Runaround
You may find it difficult to meet with your principal. Many administrators are so uninterested in hearing from their students that they allow (or even order) their secretaries to give students the runaround. When you visit your principal's office, his secretary may tell you, "He's busy now. If you come back tomorrow, maybe he'll be free." Don't settle for "maybe." Don't even settle for "probably." Get an appointment.
Sometimes a secretary will give the student an appointment at a time she knows the principal will be out, just hoping to wear down the student. If you show up for the appointment and the principal is absent, it's time to get more aggressive.
Feel free to barge into the principal's office whenever he is there. If he objects to your intrusion, inform him he missed his appointment.
You might also choose at this point to go over your principal's head. Contact your school district's superintendent. If her contact information cannot be found on the internet, check the government section of your local phone book. Going over the principal's head will make him unhappy, but if he refused to talk to you directly or he hid behind his secretary, he has no one to blame but himself.
Allies Among the School Staff
An important early step of any campaign is to find allies who can give you advice and assistance. Finding allies among your teachers may be difficult. Even teachers with tenure fear reprisals from the principal. But if you know any teachers who might support you, talk to them — privately, if possible. They may not want the principal finding out they helped you, but they may be willing to give you informed advice on how to get changes in the school or how to frame your arguments to persuade the adults more effectively.
Allies on the Outside
If you've approached the principal and he has refused to make changes or, worse yet, refused to talk to you, it's time to bring in some big guns.
You might start by contacting the office of your State Senator or Assemblymember. These elected officials usually have "case workers," government employees whose function is to help constituents (like you) resolve problems with the government. If you have a problem with a public school (or a publicly funded charter school), you have a problem with the government. A call to the principal from an elected official's office may be all it takes to get that unfair policy changed.
In your local Yellow Pages under "attorney," you'll find lawyers who offer free consultation. Consult with one. She will tell you what options you have and what legal obligations your school has. Schools sometimes break the law, relying on ignorant students not knowing their rights. If your school is breaking the law, the lawyer may well offer to sue for you on a contingency so you pay nothing out of your own pocket.
You may also find free help from political organizations that support your cause. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a long record of fighting for students' rights. When an ACLU attorney calls a principal, that principal usually scrambles.
Petitions Build Power
If most students in your school support the change you seek, they can be your best allies — if you organize them. Step one is to collect signatures on a petition.
Many students get cynical about petitions. My principal doesn't care how students feel, they think. He'll just throw the petition away.
Principals who are smart or experienced get worried when petitions circulate because they know this can be the start of something bigger.
Petitions allow students to see they are not alone. When people feel isolated, they feel weak and they submit. When people see that others are angry enough to spend time collecting signatures, they know they are not alone, and they feel empowered to stand up. And that's only the beginning.
Don't just ask students to scribble their signature on a line. Ask them to neatly print their name and also their phone number and email address. Before you turn this over to the principal, photocopy the list or scan it into a computer. Now you have a database of supporters and an easy way to contact them for further action.
Social media makes contact even easier. Give your campaign a page on Facebook or Google + or whatever site is popular with your classmates. When people sign your petition, tell them about your social media page and ask them to "like" or "join" or whatever. This will make it even easier for you to rally your troops.
After someone signs, ask if he would also be willing to help you collect signatures or donate spare change. Have a can or jar ready to collect money, which can be used to help you pay for all this printing and photocopying.
Each page of the petition should be the same. Just a simple statement at the top (ex. "We the students of Furrybut Middle School request an open campus and a repeal of the dress code.") followed by spaces for students' signatures and contact information. Most word processing programs make it easy to insert a blank table, so you can easily create specific spaces for names, phone numbers, and email addresses. This also makes it easy to add up the signatures you've collected. If there are 20 signature spaces on each page and you've filled 12 pages, that's 240 signatures. Easy math.
Sometimes principals become so threatened by petitions that they'll try to stop you from collecting signatures or even "confiscate" your petitions. Be ready for this.
Each day, leave at home any petition pages that have already been filled so those pages will be safe no mater what. If the principal does try to bully you into ceasing or surrendering your pages, resist. Such actions on the principal's part are usually illegal, and if your congressman's office and your local lawyer and the ACLU were not interested before, they will be now.
Once you've gathered the signatures and copied the contact info, go ahead and deliver the petition to your principal's office. You might attach a simple letter to the petition, along the lines of:
Dear Mr. Skinner,
As you can see from the attached petition, more than 500 students have now requested an open campus and an end to the dress code. Please contact me to arrange a convenient time when we can discuss this in more depth.
Include your name and contact information. Even if he was uninterested in talking to you before, he may be interested now. Before, you were just one student. Now you are the spokesman for over 500. Now he will be more eager to reach an agreement.
If you deliver the petition to a secretary or anyone other than the principal himself, be sure to get the name of the person who received it. If the principal later claims he never got the petition, demand that secretary be fired and watch how fast she becomes a witness against him.
If the principal now agrees to another meeting, go in with one or two friends. It will be harder for him to bully you if you are not alone. Present your best arguments, and again request the policy change.
If he still will not budge, you now have an army of supporters waiting for the next move. Assemble your hardest-working volunteers and discuss how to use your army. This would also be a good time for another free consultation with an attorney to learn the possible legal consequences of any strategy you might pursue from here.
Why Walkouts Work
Funding for public schools throughout the United States is based on attendance. Every time a student misses a class, the school loses money. When dozens or even hundreds of students are rallying on the school lawn, refusing to attend class, this guarantees the principal's attention.
When Principals Punish
In a walkout, the principal will be desperate to get the students back in class. He may use threats, but most of his threats will be empty. He can assign detention, but you can cut detention as easily as you can cut class. If he suspends the protesters, that keeps them out of class even longer, costing the school more money.
More likely, he will single out one or two protest leaders and threaten to punish them in ways that might make an example of them and scare the other protesters into returning to class. Protesters should counter this by adding to their list of demands the reversal of any such punishment.
The principal may try to separate the protest leaders from the other protesters by suspending the leaders and then threatening to have them charged with trespassing should they remain. Of course, if you stand on the public sidewalk outside the school, you're not trespassing.
A smart move might be to have at least one person in your leadership circle maintain a low profile. She can join the protest but not make speeches or otherwise draw attention to herself as a leader. If the more visible leaders are removed, she can then lead. And the protesters can make it clear they will not even discuss returning to class until those original leaders are back.
Prepare for Deception
When punishments and threats don't work, the principal may resort to trickery. Here are some common tricks to beware of.
Trick #1: Passing the Buck
The principal may insist he has no power to make the needed policy change; he is simply following orders from the superintendent. If you then go after the superintendent, she will insist she is at the mercy of the school board, and the school board members will insist they merely carry out the will of the voters. Don't fall for this.
Martin Luther King shot to fame by leading a boycott against a bus company seating black passengers separately from whites. That bus company was simply obeying a local law, and the local lawmakers were obeying their constituents. King rightly kept the pressure on the bus company. This gave the bus company ammunition to go to the lawmakers and say the law needs changing. Likewise, your protests give your principal ammunition to demand a change in policy.
Without protests, your principal's situation is that he will be punished for disobeying the superintendent, but he will not be punished for obeying her. In that situation, he will naturally obey her and continue hurting students. Protests create a situation where he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. This frees him to follow his conscience.
It may be that your principal agrees with you but was afraid to argue with his bosses. Your protests cover him. They allow him to say to his administrators, "Of course I agree with you, Ma'am, but the situation is getting out of control. Of course I don't want to make this change any more than you do, but we have to do it so we can resume classes. These lousy protesters leave us no choice."
If the principal supports his students, student protests help him by making it easier for him to do the right thing. If the principal opposes his own students, the students owe him no mercy.
Trick #2: The False Victory
The principal may promise that if students return to class, he will listen to a representative. When a principal who has refused to listen before now promises to hear you out, that may feel like a victory. It isn't. When students return to class, you lose your leverage. Once you're alone, the principal may bully you or trick you or delay things, or just nod his head while you talk and then continue with the same old policy.
When you walk out of the meeting without the policy change, you'll have to organize another protest, and some students will feel discouraged, thinking, We already had one protest, and it didn't work. Why bother with another one?
(How worthless is this promise to talk? For one example, check out this secret recording of Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker. He discusses here his plans to deal with protesters having a sit-in in the capitol building and with Democratic officials refusing to create the quorum needed to pass Walker's anti-union legislation. At 6:40, you'll hear Walker discuss his offer to "talk" to the Democrats.)
If the principal wants to negotiate in good faith with representatives, he can do so while the protest continues.
The longer your protest continues, the stronger it grows. With every class period that protesters are absent from class, the school looses another chunk of money and the pressure on your principal mounts. Furthermore, at the start of your protest, there will be students who support your cause but who attend class anyway, either because they didn't hear about the protest or because they feared they would be the only one to show up and would get in trouble. The longer your rally continues, the more students will become aware of this opportunity to finally be heard. The longer fretful students see their classmates protesting without regret, the more likely they will be to muster up the courage to join your crowd. The longer your protest runs, the more leverage you gain over the principal.
Trick #3: Permanent Delay
Another false victory might be a delay tactic. The principal may say something like, "The change you're asking for will take time. But if everyone goes back to class right now, I will begin the process to get that change."
Not good enough.
The protest ends when the policy is changed, not when the principal promises to "try" to change it. Your continuing protest will motivate the principal to make change happen at a quick pace.
Sit-Ins: Pro and Con
Having protesters crowd into the administration office and refuse to leave can increase your impact. Not only are students missing class and costing the school money, you're now making it harder for the principal to get any work done.
This increases the pressure on him, but it also has a downside. It makes the principal more likely to get punitive. If his goal is to get students to return to class, punishment methods fail. If he's willing, however, to settle for just getting students out of his office, punishment methods can work for him. He may now be willing to issue mass suspensions, and if suspended students refuse to leave, he may yell "trespassing" and threaten to call the police.
For these reasons, it is often best not to start with a sit-in. But if your outdoor rally goes a few days and you see no progress, a sit-in may be one way to shake things up.
Dealing with Police
When first-time protesters hear a threat to "call the police," they often worry this means they are about to be arrested. It doesn't.
I have personal experience in many protests where police were present. I was once arrested at a sit-in. Other times, I have watched police stand by doing nothing as no laws were actually broken. (Consult with a lawyer, consult with the ACLU: these things pay off.)
When police show up at a protest, it is usually not because they hate you and want to punish you. They are merely people with a job to do, and like most workers, they are often eager to lighten their workload.
For police, arresting a large mass of people means doing a large mass of work. They need to handcuff each prisoner. They have to find a vehicle to take each prisoner to Juvenile Hall. They have to unlock all those handcuffs. They have to fill out paperwork on each person arrested. They have to call the parents of each person arrested. They have to guard each prisoner until their parents pick them up. And that's assuming the protesters are cooperative.
Consider what a burden it was for the police who made arrests at the famous sit-in at U.C. Berkeley. When the officers made their first arrest, other demonstrators surrounded the police car. Since police are not authorized to run over peaceful protesters, the arresting officers became prisoners in their squad car as surely as the protester they had arrested.
Police don't want to do all that work. They prefer to resolve a situation like this without making arrests.
When police arrive at a nonviolent protest, before they make arrests, they usually parley with the protest leaders. They'll ask the leaders to end the protesting. Feel free to negotiate with the police. "Instead of going back to class, how about if we just move the protest out of the office and into the hallway?"
If you do not reach an agreement, police will still not jump immediately to arresting people. If the police are on their game, they will first try to reduce the number they have to arrest. They will usually announce a general warning to the protesters that, if the sit-in continues, protesters will be arrested. Police figure at least some protesters will back down, leaving the police less work to do arresting people.
As you can see, there are many opportunities to grab the principal's attention, increase the costs of his stubbornness, and still avoid arrest. But if the fear of arrest leads students to end their protest and return to class, you've lost the battle, and your troops are likely to be so demoralized that they will not turn out for any more protests.
Before getting too close to arrest, try to poll your protesters and see how many are willing to be arrested. If many are, this gives you the freedom to pursue more aggressive tactics without risk of losing. And getting arrested may even be good for your side as it increases public attention.
Media: Pro and Con
Many people think protests are all about getting public attention. They aren't. The economic pressures you apply by missing class can succeed without a single reporter showing up.
Media coverage can be both good and bad. If the principal sees that the public is watching him, he may feel all the more need to show how tough he is and refuse to compromise.
On the other hand, media involvement has several benefits. Media presence makes people take things more seriously. If the principal has been dismissive, public interest may make him realize your issues are important. Public attention can also increase the pressure on him to get the students back to class, and if the only way for him to do that is to negotiate, he is pulled to the bargaining table.
Media scrutiny may also push the principal to deal with students more honestly. Breaking promises is harder after those promises were made before reporters.
Media can also boost the morale of protesters, reminding them how significant their actions are. And students at other schools may be inspired by your example, spreading the power of students and forcing the school system to take the concerns of students more seriously in all future decisions.
Finally, the arrival of reporters can be a good way to shake things up if the campaign drags on too long without result.
If You Want Media
If you invite the media, be sure to place your protest strategically. Reporters may fear getting themselves arrested if they come on campus without the principal's permission, so locate your rally where it can be seen from a public sidewalk.
Newspapers and TV and radio stations are all listed in the Yellow Pages. Most also have websites offering their phone numbers for news tips. Get those numbers ahead of time and have them with you. If you have to call during the protest, you can use a cell or a school pay phone.
It's best, however, to call the media ahead of time. Give them at least an hour, or better yet a few days, to find their best available reporters and get it in their schedule. You'll want to give them a way to contact you so their reporter can get more info and can interview you for the story, either during the event or after.
When reporters show up, talk to them. Answer their questions, and most importantly, get their names and contact information. Reporters may not have time to cover every hour of your multi-day protest. But if they report on the protest, they'll probably want to inform their audience how the protest turned out. You will, too.
If your protest ends in victory, this is the most important part of the story to publicize. Your victory is what will inspire other students to stand up in their schools. More importantly, if the media report the agreement you've reached with the principal, that will make it harder for him to break his promise later.
If the principal does break his promise and you have to resume protests, be sure to remind reporters that he made those promises and is now dishonoring his agreement. That information will help direct public sympathy to the right side of this battle.
Likewise, be sure that you're scrupulously honest with reporters. If they catch you in a lie, you lose credibility. Get your facts straight, do not mislead, and the truths you tell will have more power.
When the protest begins, protesters may feel excited, eager to make their voices heard at last. If the battle drags on for days or weeks, however, protesters may grow weary, bored, and may even start thinking that returning to class would be more fun. It's important to keep up morale.
The classic protest morale-boost is the chant. A chant does not need to be brilliant poetry. (Seriously, do these chants look like they were written by Robert Frost?) Anything people can say together can work. "1, 2, 3, 4. Open campus, unlock the door." Easy. You'll want more than one chant to avoid monotony. Have a contest to see who can come up with the best chant. Print out chant sheets in advance so you have good ones handy. Print out multiple copies if your budget allows so people who didn't hear the words the first time won't get lost.
Chants are also a good idea because noise makes it harder for the administrators to tune you out. For the same reason, it's a good idea to bring some whistles, bells, drums, or other noise-makers. If your rally will occur on a sidewalk in view of a busy street, at least one sign should ask drivers to honk their horns to show support. The more noise the principal hears, the more pressure he feels to negotiate and bring an end to the protest.
Another way to fight boredom is to march the protesters across the campus. A march not only gives protesters something to do, it ensures that people in every building get to see and/or hear the protest. This, too, makes it harder for school authorities to ignore you.
Be sure to plan for unexpected whether. If your rally is outdoors, plan a place to go if it rains.
When you negotiate with the principal, your degree of compromise will depend on morale. If your troops are eager to fight on, you can stick to your guns and demand every change the students want. Every hour the principal refuses, the school loses more money.
If, however, morale is flagging and protesters seem eager for the protest to end, you may have to give up some demands to win the rest. There's nothing dishonorable about settling for half-a-loaf. Be prepared for this.
One way to prepare is to ask for a lot of changes in the beginning; then you can drop some demands and still get quite a bit. If, on the other hand, you start out humbly asking for only one small change, a compromise will leave you with even less. It may be smart to begin by asking for a little more than you really expect to get.
Once the policy is changed, do not delete your database of supporters. To make the changes permanent, you need vigilant students watching and ready to act.
Form a students' rights club. It could be an ACLU club or just your own independent organization. The important thing is that students who care passionately about students' rights meet on a regular basis, discuss how the students are being treated, consider whatever new issues come up, and stand ready to take action if required.
This will insure not only that the principal keep whatever promises he made, it will force him to take students' views into account on all future decisions. This will insure that even after you graduate, there is a force on campus giving students a voice.
Worth the Work
America is supposed to be a democracy, and we deserve democracy in our schools. With diligent work, thoughtful strategizing, and perseverance, students can win a voice in how their government, through its schools, governs students.
Delivering democracy to your school can be a lot of work. Tyrants fight tooth and nail to maintain their unchecked power. But your victory will make the work all worthwhile.