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‘It’s on us to fight’: the student climate activist energizing a US school board | Education

shiva Rajbhandari was not even of legal voting age when he decided to hire a 47-year-old incumbent on Boise’s school board. The high school senior turned 18 days before Election Day last month — and won.

The young climate activist took on Steve Schmidt, who was supported by the far-right Idaho Liberty Dogs, a local group rebelling against public library books that contain LGBTQ+ themes. The group also planned an armed protest at Rajbhandari high school after a student was suspended for bringing a gun near campus.

Rajbhandari’s victory goes against a national trend. Across the US, school boards have become one of the most active fronts in the American culture wars. Once mundane public rallies about facility upgrades and textbook budgets have become highly politicized, conservative parents, supported by local and national right-wing organizations, are fighting to reform the school curriculum, restrict transgender students’ rights and fight off Covid-19 masks and vaccination mandates. to buy. Over the past two years, hundreds of school administrators have been the target of conservative and right-wing recalls.

Rajbhandari – who appears to be the first student ever elected to an Idaho school board – hopes he and his fellow students can begin to fight back against those forces.

In an interview with The Guardian, he discussed his goals as a school board administrator – and how the climate will be his vehicle for change and student empowerment.

Why did you choose to run for the school board?

I definitely did not expect to go to the office at this age. But I was just learning how important it was to try to get a student vote on the school board. As students, we are not always taken seriously. So then it’s up to us to take that responsibility, to fight for our future.

Shiva Rajbhandari, center, stands with his classmates. Rajbhandari’s platform focuses on the climate crisis. Photo: Shiva Rajbhandari

How did your activism start?

In seventh grade I learned about climate change. And I was very fortunate to go to a school where it was taught, because at the time, in Idaho K-12 schools, climate change was not part of our science curriculum standards. But at the same time, I really felt this fear and isolation.

Then in ninth grade I attended a climate strike organized by local students. Then my sense of isolation turned into a sense of empowerment. I started a youth chapter of Extinction Rebellion. I joined the Idaho Climate Justice League and we delivered the largest petition the school district had ever received, asking the district to create a 10-year sustainability plan.

Did you feel that you and your peers were taken seriously?

It was frustrating because it felt like we weren’t getting the time of day from our school board members. In the fall of last year, I sent a letter to the school board president explaining our efforts and asking him to meet. And I got no response. But I knew he had read the letter because about a week later I was called to my principal’s office and reprimanded for contacting the administrators directly.

As students, we are the main stakeholders here – this is our education. But we were told we didn’t belong in places where decisions about our education were made. And by the end of that meeting, I knew I wanted to run for the school board.

You had also protested the efforts of the Idaho legislature to ban certain curricula and books in school.

Idaho is truly a testing ground for rural extremism. After the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, we saw this white resistance. And the Idaho legislature became one of the first to ban the teachings of critical race theory.

I mean, critical race theory is not taught in our schools. It’s not even a subject, it’s more of a lens through which we can look at history and institutions – and it’s something that’s really more relevant at the university level. Still, the bill, H 377, passed — and my friends and I rallied against that bill, because it was clearly an attempt to undermine our teachers and undermine our public schools.

I remember one time I walked into English class and half of our assignment was obscured in Sharpie. And it wasn’t because the assignment had anything to do with critical race theory. It was because our teacher was intimidated by the rhetoric of the highest levels of our government. The assignment was about the civil rights movement.

In a neighboring school district, four books were banned from school libraries, including three books that were on the advanced literature and composition curriculum.

Shiva Rajbhandari, left, says he hopes more students across the country will run for seats on school boards.  'Our perspective is so valuable, and we really have a lot to contribute.'
Shiva Rajbhandari, left, says he hopes more students across the country will run for seats on school boards. ‘Our perspective is so valuable, and we really have a lot to contribute.’ Photo: Shiva Rajbhandari

When you were 16, you and your fellow students also directly confronted Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, about the task force she set up to “to research indoctrination in Idaho training”. Tell us more about that.

Everyone knew the task force’s allegations were fabricated. And they never allowed public comment until the last task force meeting, which took place while the school was in session.

So we had to miss a school to show up. It felt really powerful to have my peers with me and to be sort of a representative for students across the state, standing up for what was happening. But it was really frustrating because you could see that these people really had a lot of disdain for public schools as a whole.

A pivotal moment in your election was when your opponent was supported by far-right Idaho Liberty Dogs.

That group planned an armed protest at our school. I know them because they had attended several climate events that I organized or helped to organize, and brought their AR-15s. These are literally grown adults carrying weapons to intimidate us.

When my opponent refused numerous times to reject the support of this group, I think the majority of Boise voters really agreed. As this far-right hate-filled organization seeks to infiltrate or influence our school district, it is a very real threat to our teachers and students.

In recent years, American school boards have become increasingly politicized battlefields to battle over issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and race relations.
In recent years, American school boards have become increasingly politicized battlefields to battle over issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and race relations. Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

What’s first on your agenda as a newly elected school administrator?

My top priority is mental health. We are dealing with a mental health crisis. So we need more resources for counseling and we need to destigmatize mental health in the classroom.

And then support teachers against these extremist attacks and make sure they have the freedom to teach the way they think is best, and feel respected. My teachers really gave me the world – they are the reason I felt so powerful.

And finally climate action. This is one of the most important issues for students and young people worldwide.

I have been elected for a two-year term, but I intend to resign after one year and pass the seat on to another student on our newly formed student advisory committee.

Above all, I hope my election sets a precedent, and that I won’t be the last student on the school board here in Boise. I hope that more students will also apply for school boards elsewhere. Our perspective is so valuable and we really have a lot to offer.

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