One of the trickiest things about creating change in schools is that it isn’t always clear who sets school policy. Policies can be determined at the federal or state level, either through legislation, legal cases, or guidelines set by the federal or state Departments of Education. Other policies are also set at the local level either through the school board or by the superintendent. And of course policies are implemented differently by teachers and school administrators. Student handbooks are a good place to find out your school’s policies and can also outline who is responsible for implementing those policies. Once you’ve figured out who the decision maker is for your particular issue, you can start letting them know your concerns.

During your negotiations with school administrators or board members, find out what they care about and what would make them support your goal. For example:

  • Does your principal care more about whether policies are easy for the teachers to implement or what parents will say?
  • Is your school board member up for re-election and are they concerned about getting the youth vote? Or maybe they feel secure in their seat and are willing to take on less popular legislation?
  • Is the school policy you are fighting was implemented by an unpopular administration and can you use that to increase your support among teachers and parents?

Meeting with the Administration

If possible, it is a good idea to meet with your teacher or principal first to see if you can negotiate a change in policy. This can work well if it is something small or if a policy is being implemented unfairly. Here are some tips for your meeting:

  • Present your information in writing.
  • Outline the educational benefits of your new policy.
  • Be courteous and professional, and expect that behavior to be returned.

If your complaint involves the principal, you can also make formal complaints to the superintendent or go directly to the school board.

Meeting with the School Board

Most school districts are run by local school boards (sometimes called a Board of Education). Depending on the state or district, school board members can be either elected or appointed by a governmental official. The responsibilities of school boards can vary, but typically may include hiring and firing the superintendent, approving the school calendar, setting the curriculum, setting the school budget, negotiating with the teachers’ union, and overseeing issues with school facilities, including the construction of new schools.

There are many different ways students have used school boards as part of their campaign. For example:

  • Speak at a school board meeting. Most school board meetings schedule a set time for public commentary where you can ask the board to take action on an issue. You should check if there are procedures in place to sign up for a speaking time or if you can simply show up unannounced. Here are some further guidelines on how to testify at a school board.
  • Run for school board. Eligibility to join and vote on a school board varies by state. There is currently 19 states that include students in their state board of education and 25 states allow students on their district school boards. Students who serve on their school boards are not elected in the same way that its adult members are. In most cases they are selected separately by the school board. However, these student representatives may also be elected by their fellow students to represent them on the district school board. Here is a list of laws that either students to participate in school boards or prevent their participation at the state and district level.
  • Expand the power of students on the school board. Even school boards that allow student members sometimes only give them limited power. If this is the case in your district, you can follow other students that have expanded the power of students on school boards in their area.
  • Use political pressure. Even if you can’t vote or run for school board you can run a campaign that tell parents and other community members to vote for school board members who want to protect student rights.
  • Use direct action. Some students have also taken over school board in protest. Here’s an example of students who protested changes in their curriculum. You can also learn more about student protests in our Activist Toolkit.
  • File a complaint against the school board or your school. Your school board may have a formal procedure for filing a complaint. (For example, the California Department of Education created this Uniform Complaint Procedure Form which you can submit online.) You may also be able to get a form by asking your principal or school administrator. If you go through a formal complaint procedure, the school district will be required to give you a response within a certain amount of time explaining what they found, their conclusions and the legal basis for it, what steps they plan to take, and your right to appeal. Every state department of education has its own process of receiving complaints against teachers and administrators. You can find this on the state DOE’s website. Your complaint will carry weight if you convince other classmates to submit complaints as well.

Using Student Government

The amount of power that student governments (sometimes called student councils or student unions) have to change policy can vary greatly depending on the school, but unfortunately it is often limited. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be a useful tool in getting students more involved in policy making. Many student governments, especially in colleges, have made important changes that affect students’ everyday lives. These include establishing all gender restrooms and providing free hygiene products to students.

Some students have formed campus political parties in order to turn student governments into a force for change. In the 1960s, innovative UC Berkeley political party SLATE won many student government seats, inspiring other parties across the country and starting a historical movement for free speech.

Some schools will also take the student council more seriously than just a group of students. And at the college level, some student governments can send representatives to be a voting member of the governing board of their institution.

Using Direct Action in Schools

If your requests are ignored or denied by school officials, you can use direct action to apply more pressure and show that the students are the ones with the power. For example, if meeting with and petitioning your administration isn’t working, you can apply more pressure by including theatrical actions and walkouts. Before engaging in direct action it is a good idea to put your requests in writing and try to get any reply in writing, so that you have a record of your attempt and your the decision maker’s refusal. Involving the media can help put more pressure on the school administration and may even make them look unreasonable.

It can also be a good idea to change your tactics so that the administration will have to spend time thinking about how to respond.  For example, if students at your school have led walkouts before and been ignored by the principal, you can try a sit-in in the principal’s office instead.

Groups will often choose more direct tactics in order to make the cost of not granting their demands greater in terms of public relations, money, staff time, headaches, etc. than the cost of refusing them. Using direct tactics is often about forcing the decision maker to consciously weigh the cost of not addressing your demands. Because of this you should keep in mind to only use strategies you’re comfortable with. You will only gain traction to succeed if everyone in your chapter is fully behind your strategies and tactics, so if you’re not comfortable using certain tactics you should choose a different overall strategy so you don’t have to.

Defending against School Punishment

Many students who have worked on changing school policy have focused on changing how school punishment is implemented. Regardless of whether you abide by all of your school’s rules, any student can be brought in for questioning and you should be prepared. This is especially true if you are accused of breaking a law, since anything you say to a teacher or administrator can be used as evidence in a court case.

Set up a Student Defense Committee

A Student Defense Committee (SDC) is a group of students that offers assistance to other students accused of breaking a school rule and are involved in disciplinary procedure with the school administration. The SDC provides those students with support and acts in a similar role to that of a defense lawyer. The aim of a Student Defense Committees is to ensure that the student’s rights of due process are protected throughout the procedure.

The SDC assigns a member of its committee to assist any student that requests it. That member can accompany the student during both informal hearings, such as getting called into the school office, and during formal hearings which can include appealing decisions at various levels of school administration. The SDC also serve to educate students about their rights in general.

Student Defense Committees are usually set up within the student council, but can be independent bodies. Students wishing to set up a SDC will need to find other students who would want to join and be able to explain the importance of having representation during a disciplinary procedure to both the other students and the administration.

Record Conversations and Take Notes

If you are questioned about possible rule-breaking, and can’t have another student in the meeting to help you, it is a good idea to try to record your conversation or take notes. You should let teachers and administrators know you are recording them as this alone will make them more likely to be careful in what they say. If they ask you not to record the conversation, you should ask them why, but be aware that in many states you are only allowed to record conversations when both parties agree. If you aren’t able to take notes, write down everything after the meeting. You can also let the administrators know that you will be appealing their decision or contacting the media if you feel you have been treated unjustly.

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