How a tumultuous school year for Seattle students sparked a movement to demand change

Over the course of the pandemic, Seattle students have endured online classes, missed out on senior-year milestones, scrambled to adjust for last-minute school cancellations, and lived through dramatic spikes in COVID-19 cases at schools.

All the uncertainty and fear brought them together.

They formed a new group, the Seattle Student Union, to fight for change and equity, organized shortly after winter break ended — when COVID cases were at an all-time high.

“It was clear the district wasn’t going to do enough” to protect students from the virus, said Natalya McConnell, a Seattle Student Union co-founder and sophomore at Franklin High School. At one point, Franklin had the highest number of cases in the district.

Another group, Students Against Sexual Assault, came together to fight for stronger sexual harassment policies. Students organized rallies at district headquarters and worked with School Board members and district officials to create new policies that the board approved earlier this month.

Young people have long organized for change, but there’s been an upsurge of activism in the Seattle region and across the country since the pandemic started, said Ann Ishimaru, associate professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education. She’s done research in youth activism and has partnered with the district’s African American Male Achievement office and the Seattle teachers union to work to improve equity.

“There’s a long-standing tradition of youth organizing and youth voice,” Ishimaru said. “In the last 10 years, there’s been efforts to connect to national movements.”

Students have walked out of school in major cities, like Chicago and New York, because of COVID safety concerns, Ishimaru said.

The Seattle Student Union leaders wanted stronger safety protocols, including higher quality masks and weekly testing for students and employees. Like their peers in other cities, Seattle students walked out of school to rally in front of district headquarters.

School board members and administrators listened. Eventually, every student in the district had access to KN-95 or N-95 masks, and testing was made more widely available. Although district officials had been working on these issues, students believe their advocacy was the final push.

“We did some social media sharing and also created a petition and within a couple of hours the district saw it and responded,” McConnell said. “It shows how much student organizing… can make a huge impact. I think that’s so powerful.”

Seventh grader Miles Hagopian said he’s most proud of the student union’s efforts to push for free rapid testing. Seattle Schools gave all students and staff rapid tests before they left for spring break in an effort to avoid spikes in COVID cases.

“We deserve to know we’re safe,” said Hagopian, a Seattle Student Union organizer who goes to Mercer International Middle School.

There are about 30 core members in the Seattle Student Union from various schools, including Cleveland High, Lincoln High, The Center School, Ingraham High, Nathan Hale High, Garfield High, Nova High, and Mercer Middle. And more students are joining all the time. The group held its first member introduction Zoom meeting Thursday night to welcome new students.

“The word ‘union’ implies there are multiple groups coming together — those groups being from different schools,” said Delano Cordova, co-founder and senior at Franklin. “We found it was most fitting.”

COVID is not the only issue motivating students across the nation. The murder of George Floyd also sparked national activism among young people. And as the US Supreme Court weighs the issue of abortion rights, the Seattle Student Union helped spread the word about a student-led march Friday in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

But not all student demands around COVID safety protocols and sexual harassment policies have been met. The student union has asked for the mask mandate to return in Seattle Schools, but masks are currently still optional.

SASA is still requesting the district to have a therapist who specializes in sexual assault at every Seattle high school and to create a policy that prohibits a student from participating in extracurricular activities if they are being investigated or have been convicted of sexual assault. The group also wants continuous training for all mandatory reporters in the district on how to handle sexual assault and harassment complaints without retraumatizing students. And they want an improved sex education curriculum.

Since the summer of 2020, youth organizing has played a part in monumental moments in schools, Ishimaru said. For example, youth groups around the country have successfully advocated to remove police from school buildings. In June 2020, Seattle became one of those school districts.

But the decades-long work from youth groups is what made that possible, Ishimaru said. “I’m not convinced that just mobilization could have affected those things,” she said, noting that many of these youth organizing groups were already in existence “and were there at the right time or place.”

And student activism has continued to embolden younger generations.

Cordova said one of his biggest inspirations was a senior he met at Franklin when he was a sophomore. She was deeply involved in activism and he saw how much change could come from youth organizing.

“I was like, ‘Dang, I want to be part of something bigger and want to be part of a group where I feel like I could make a change,’” Cordova said.

Youth groups such as Seattle Student Union and SASA have leveraged social media to get their voices elevated. It’s a powerful tool and makes it easier to organize virtual strikes, said Lucía Magis-Weinberg, an assistant professor of psychology at UW who studies adolescents and their use of social media.

“Youth have always been a source of challenging the status quo,” Magis-Weinberg said. “Many movements in the world are led by youth. They want to see things change and have the energy, and desire and can push boundaries. There are some aspects of adolescent brain development that make them risk-takers.”

The Seattle Student Union and SASA Instagram accounts have helped push out information. Both accounts have more than 600 followers.

As Cordova and other senior members go off to college in the fall, the hope is more students will continue to join and create a legacy.

“I want to be able to leave and know there will be students there that stay as active,” McConnell said. “I think the group is so new we don’t know where we’re going to go or what’s going to happen.”

Looking ahead to the next school year, McConnell said students will continue to fight for COVID safety protocols and will expand their efforts to include establishing gender-neutral bathrooms.

Hagopian hopes the district will continue to listen to the needs of the community and student voices when it comes to sexual assault accountability and restorative justice.

“We are all united and have the same goals,” McConnell said. “Part of my goal is for this to last and be passed down.”

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