Editorial: It’s time for Urban’s absence policy to align with its values and public image

Ellie Lerner, News and Opinions Editor

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On September 20th, the Urban School posted eleven photos of Urban students protesting alongside thousands of other Bay Area students at the San Francisco Climate Strike on the Urban School Instagram account. Despite the school’s well-earned reputation for student activism, these Instagram posts are not reflective of Urban’s current unexcused absence policy for political protesting.
The school administration has changed the absence policy in recent years regarding attending political protests to categorizing the absence as unexcused. Unexcused absences for political protesting and walkouts appear on a student’s attendance transcript and permanent file. Though this particular unexcused absence does not incur disciplinary action by the school, the impact of this absence policy is to both promote student activism for the wrong reasons as well as discourage student activism altogether. Diverging from the school’s public image and political legacy, the current protest policy stands in contrast to Urban’s mission statement to be a school in which “learning extends beyond the classroom to instill in students a sense of mission and purpose as citizens of the larger community and world.”
Urban’s current unexcused absence policy deviates from the school’s long tradition of political activism by its student body. Originally, administration and faculty encouraged students to engage in civil protests. Charlotte Worsley, Dean of Student Life, explained that “during the Vietnam War, the whole school would march out the door together.”
The current absence policy began to take form in 2016 when a group of students staged a school walkout in protest of the presidential election results and, following Urban tradition, those absences were deemed excused. “[B]ut then there were students who were really upset about that, and they said that shouldn’t have been excused because it disrupted their classes,” Worsley said, “and if you are going to do something like that—if you are going to take civil action—it should count. It shouldn’t be so easy.”
In the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland Shooting, “student leaders said they wanted us to treat [their protest] as completely unexcused, so we made it unexcused,” Worsley said. For the first time in Urban’s history, student protesters were given unexcused absences and parents were required to call and confirm their consent for their children’s participation.
Student leaders who encouraged the administration to change the protest policy to “unexcused” were focusing on the protester’s experience of self-sacrifice rather than the issues being protested. In order to feel the weight of their commitment to the cause, students wanted to impose further barriers to protest. However, focusing on the experience of the protesters, and not the underlying cause, is misguided. Rather, the purpose of protesting is to make the biggest impact possible in order to effect real societal change.
The absence policy changed again in anticipation of this fall’s youth climate strike. In a change reflected in the Urban’s Student Handbook, student absences due to participation in a protest or walkout are unexcused but students can make up the work that was missed during the protest. “It occurred to me that yes, I’m fine with it being unexcused…but I wanted it to be more of the unexcused like [when] a parent pulls you out of school,” Worsley said, rather than the type of unexcused absence incurred when a student skips school without permission from a parent or guardian and the missed work cannot be made up.
By deeming student walkouts for political issues unexcused absences but allowing students to make up the work, Urban’s protest policy aims at striking a balance between encouraging students to really think about their choices and shutting off political activism altogether. The real effect of the policy, however, is that of discouraging political engagement at a moment in history when everyone needs to be vigilant and civically engaged. Niko Asai ‘23, who did not attend the youth climate strike in September, said, “I really didn’t want to get an unexcused absence and neither did my parents. Honestly, I think it’s hard enough to just miss a class even if it’s excused.”
Whatever category of unexcused absence, the fact that participating in political protests is labeled as “unexcused” establishes that the school administration does not officially support the action. Yet despite its lack of official support for student protesters, Urban continues to receive good publicity for something that it does not actually endorse anymore; in addition to several Instagram posts of student protesters, Urban recently released a video that featured footage of students at the September youth climate strike as advertising for the 2019-2020 Annual Fund. In light of recent public boasts of student activism, it is time for Urban to reconcile its public image of social activism with the school’s actual absence policy.
Given the mounting dangers of climate change and gun violence that have been the subjects of the most recent school walkouts, student leaders and administration should be encouraging collective activism, not discouraging it. Joseph Neyman ‘21 explained, “these protests are about our future, which is more important than the little things happening in our lives right now. [Counting protesting as an unexcused absence is] unfair to my generation because it makes it harder to prioritize fighting for our future over the little things.”