Kyle Ferris is a student at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., and a leader of protests that have been rocking the school system there for weeks. In the following Q&A, Ferris explains why he started protests at his school and what he and others hope to achieve from their demonstrations as well as what he is learning about American democracy.
Students and teachers at a number of schools in Jefferson County have been staging protests — including school walkouts, sick-ins and street demonstrations — since Sept. 19, when members of the Board of Education proposed setting up a committee to review the new Advanced Placement U.S. History course framework to see if the material was promoting patriotism, the free-market system and respect for authority and don’t encourage civil disorder. Students became angry at the proposal and starting protesting what they believed was an attempt at censorship. Some teachers, who also opposed the plan as well as a new assessment and compensation system that they believe is unfair because it uses student standardized tests as a key evaluation factor, joined in the protests by calling in sick; on some days forcing schools to close.
Eight national and local organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter to the Jefferson County Board of Education protesting the proposal. (See text of letter below)
A board meeting is scheduled for Thursday where the issue is expected to be discussed. The Jefferson County Board of Education has been changing policies since last year when three new conservative members were elected, creating a majority that drove out the superintendent and began pushing for policies such as vouchers.
Some critics have alleged that teachers are “manipulating” students into protesting. Read the Q&A I did by e-mail with Kyle Ferris, a student leader at Columbine High School who has to take the AP U.S. History, and see if that holds up:
When did you get the idea that you wanted to protest, and why?
I knew I wanted to do something about the school board for a while. My mom is pretty politically involved so I always heard her talking about it. When I heard about the walkouts at Conifer and Evergreen [high schools], I looked into the board’s actions and called my friend Garrett and decided to get something together.
How many people are participating at your school and throughout the county?
There are five people leading the walkouts at Columbine, and we had about 300 people participate overall. Throughout the county, we have a good 2,000 people participating
The protests are every day? After school? Before school? During school?
Columbine has only had one protest so far, though other schools have had two or three. The walkout protests happen during school so that we have something to, you know, walk out of. However we’re working on organizing some rallies/protests to happen over the weekends to show that we do care about this issue and aren’t just using it as an excuse to skip class.
How long are you prepared to keep up the protests?
As long as it takes. We don’t want the board to think we’ve stopped caring, so our plan is to keep doing protests and rallies until the school board starts behaving in a way that shows they’re in line with the views of Jeffco.
What will you and other protesters view as success?
Certainly a recall of the members would be nice, though that seems unlikely. Frankly we’d be happy if the board would just agree to start acting in the interests of Jeffco students and teachers instead of trying to push their ideology on us.
How much school have you missed and is that any kind of a problem for you?
I’ve only missed one day, the day we walked out. I was running around all day beforehand passing out flyers and talking to students, then I stayed at the walkout until it ended around 2:30. It hasn’t been a problem though, if anything the pressure placed on me by helping run a protest about education has encouraged me to keep my grades up.
What are you learning from this experience?
A lot. Mostly I’m learning how people need to act to make a democracy function. The school board got elected because they misrepresented themselves and only about 40 percent of registered voters turned up for the election. It’s a failure on the part of the electorate that we failed to educate ourselves about the government. These protests though are showing those of us participating that, if we want democracy to work and our government to represent us, we need to take an active role in it.
I also asked his mother, Barb Ferris, to describe how she reacted when he told her his plans to lead protests. Here’s what she said:
I am very proud of all the kids. Last week Kyle came to me and said, ‘Garrett and I want to organize a protest.’ I said ‘Okay, about what?’ He proceeded to tell me what he knew, and I told him that I fully supported him but he needed to make sure he knew the issues. I told him he could cut class(es) for the protest, but I would not call him out excused. If he felt strongly about the issues he should be willing to take an unexcused absence. (He’s a great student with good grades so I am not worried that missing class work would hurt him.) He and his friends have taken the AP history class and have firsthand knowledge of what is taught. Like I said, I am very proud and think that having young people involved in their community and to feel strongly about education and teachers is a positive thing.
Here’s the text of the letter from eight local and national organizations to the Jefferson County Board of Education: