PALMER — Hundreds of high school students across the Mat-Su walked out of class Tuesday to protest a recent series of decisions backed by school board members and administrators.
The walkout was held at 10 a.m. with students leaving class in at least seven of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District’s nine high schools. Mat-Su is Alaska’s second largest school district, with more than 19,000 students.
The walkout was in response to what organizers called “anti-student” decisions from school Superintendent Randy Trani and the school board. Those decisions include an expansion of high school graduation credit requirements; a school board decision to drastically limit the role of the student representative on the board; a school board-directed investigation into student protests; and a citizen advisory committee formed to analyze 56 books flagged by community members as controversial.
The walkout lasted for 56 minutes, a time span organizers said represented the flagged books.
An estimated total of at least 650 students walked outside Tuesday at the appointed time to stand near flag poles at each of the district’s four large high schools, including 150 students each at Career & Tech, Wasilla, and Colony high schools, and about 200 at Palmer High School.
Houston, as well as Redington and Burchell high schools near Wasilla, also saw walkouts, according to social media posts. No estimates of participation size at those schools were immediately available.
The walkout was staged a week before the Nov. 7 elections to raise awareness of local school board races, organizers said. A separate protest was also held early Monday near Wasilla High School.
But while school board members Ole Larson and Kathy McCollum are running for reelection, the walkout was designed to be nonpartisan and against the school board as a whole — not against any specific individual, said Lily Shea, a junior at Career & Technical High School near Wasilla who helped organize the protest. Students were asked to not bring any candidate-specific or political signage to the protest.
Still, she said, the protest was designed to get the attention of voters.
“Unfortunately, as high schoolers we aren’t allowed to vote, so we don’t have a lot of say in who is on our school board,” Shea said. “We’re hoping to access voices who can see what we’re doing and what change we want. We’re hoping they’ll be able to vote and be able to help us out.”
With temperatures hovering around 35 degrees with a crisp breeze, students poured outside for the walkout. Some carried signs with slogans including “we will not stay silent” and “walk out, speak out.” Others wore Halloween costumes.
At Palmer High School, about 200 teens joined student government president Deric Medley around the flagpole, occasionally breaking into chants of “student voice matters” and “no more silence, hear our voice.” Students cheered as a caravan of three vehicles rolled through the parking lot with horns blaring and “stand for students” signs taped on their windows.
Medley, a senior, said he hopes voters know the importance of involving students in school board decisions.
“I hope they understand that we need someone who can bring the student voice back,” he said. “That’s really important because it’s our school. If everything is supposed to be oriented towards us, then we should have a say as well.”
Tuesday was not the first time Mat-Su students have staged a protest or walkout. In 2018, students across the borough walked out to highlight school safety after a gunman killed 17 students at a high school in Parkland, Florida. And in 2021, students at Career & Tech protested school mask mandates created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
District officials said students have the right to peacefully protest.
“The District knew about these walk-outs and worked with schools to make sure that the students were safe and unobstructed to exercise their right while simultaneously protecting the right to an uninterrupted learning day for the majority of students who chose to stay in class,” Jillian Morrissey, a district spokesperson, said in a statement.
School administration officials at Palmer High said whether students are marked as tardy or absent from class during a walkout is a school-by-school decision. Morrissey did not respond to a request for comment as to whether any students who participated in the walkout would receive absent or tardy marks.
The next Mat-Su school board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday evening in Palmer.