Dozens of teenagers at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School walked out of their classes on a cold January morning, gathering beside a towering tree that was about to be chopped down. They raised signs in protest. They defied requests to go back inside.
“When the trees are under attack, what do we do?” one student called out, using a megaphone.
“Fight back!” the group shouted.
It was a spirited gathering, with some students tying themselves to the tree and others climbing into its branches. By day’s end, the high-performing high school in Maryland had added another lively chapter to its history of student activism.
“I definitely think we’ve made a difference,” said Hailey Hartigan, 17, who stayed at the protest through four class periods, knowing her absences would not be excused. “We felt as though these trees were there for 80 years, and from the outside it didn’t seem like there was any reason to take them down.”
Since early last school year, students at B-CC have organized a panel discussion on racial inequity and staged a Black Lives Matter demonstration to call attention to incidents of police brutality against unarmed African Americans. They also produced a widely lauded video — “I, Too, Am B-CC” — about the pain and struggle of minority students at the Montgomery County school.
On Fridays, students in peace studies classes stand along East-West Highway with signs that say “Honk for Peace.” Last year, students voted to take on a schoolwide campaign to raise awareness about sexual violence. More recently, there were tweets about the State of the Union address and both parties’ presidential debates.
“I think it’s really cool and empowering that we’ve created a lot of different ways for people to be involved and take ownership,” said Hannah Robinson, 17, co-editor-in-chief of the Tattler, the school’s 90-year-old student newspaper.
The inspiration for so much activism might come in part from the school’s location — inside the Capital Beltway — and its families, with many in some way linked to the political world of Washington. Enrollment is diverse: Last year, the school was 58 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black and 6 percent Asian, with students coming from a mix of economic backgrounds.
Principal Donna Redmond Jones, new to B-CC this school year, notes that the school’s International Baccalaureate program promotes global awareness and that students “have this sense that they can act upon their world and make a difference.”
Sisan Dorsu, who graduated in 2015, says she thinks part of it is that teachers and administrators encourage students to try to change what they don’t like. The teen, now at the University of Pennsylvania, happened to be visiting B-CC the day of the tree protest.
She joined in.
“Just in the last couple of years, I think the activism spirit kind of rose,” she said.
The activist tradition goes back a long way. In 1970, 500 B-CC students walked out after first period to march in silent protest of the invasion of Cambodia and the May 4 killings at Kent State University during a student protest.
More recently, Patricia O’Neill, a school board member who lives in Bethesda, said she recalls a buzz at B-CC when Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, was selected as a graduation speaker. There was talk that students might turn their backs, she said. As the commencement approached, she said, “Everyone was on pins and needles: Was there going to be a protest?”
O’Neill says Rice delivered her address without problems — and O’Neill thought Rice was one of the best speakers she had heard.
One longtime voice for activism at B-CC is Colman McCarthy, a peace activist and former Washington Post columnist who has taught peace studies classes there since 1987. McCarthy’s students have taken up signs for antiwar peace demonstrations on Friday mornings since the 1991 Gulf War. They enjoy it “immensely,” he says.
McCarthy says B-CC students get a lot of inspiration from their families.
“They learn at home about public policy issues, both domestic and foreign, and realize that problems do have solutions and those solutions can be nonviolent,” he said.
Eric Guerci, a B-CC student who serves on Montgomery’s school board, says that many other county schools also have passionate students pushing for change. He cited recent mental health efforts at two Montgomery high schools and a countywide march to raise awareness of the achievement gap in 2014.
“I see the student voice growing every single day,” Guerci said.
At B-CC, the tree uprising of Jan. 6 came together after students noticed the remains of two trees that had been cut down. Social media soon lit up.
“War! A declaration of war was made against our trees!” one student posted on Facebook. “The beautiful, mature, 80 year old trees that populate our front lawn have been viciously attacked by tree cutters today.”
Hailey Hartigan also took up the cause, tweeting: “THIS IS (TREE)SON!!!! Please come out, bundle up, make posters, bring chains and join us.”
Students say about 100 teenagers were gathered at the peak of the demonstration. But many mistakenly at first believed that school officials were taking down the trees to make room for more portable classroom trailers at the overcrowded school. Jones, the principal, sent letters home to families explaining the tree removal was being done by Pepco.
A spokesman for the utility said in a statement that the tree showed “visible signs of decay, cracked limbs, and possible infestation by the emerald ash borer” and posed a risk “not only to our lines but to students and passersby as limbs stretched over two sidewalks.”
Pepco halted its work amid the protest and later that afternoon met with students. The company returned for another meeting a week or so later, this time bringing a tree expert.
The large tree that inspired the protest was cut down Jan. 18.
Even so, many students said they felt the protest was worthwhile — that they were heard.
“If things are going on at B-CC that are going to affect students,” said Florence Brooks, 17, “we want to know about them and have a say in them.”