GRPS weighs in on student activism policy

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Starting in a few days, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. will allow their students one excused absence each school year for civic engagement activities.

Starting Jan. 27, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia will encourage students to get involved in political and environmental issues by allowing them to engage in marches, sit-ins and walkouts.

The Michigan Department of Education told News 8 there aren’t immediate plans on bringing this to our state, but schools are encouraged to handle the rising wave of student activism in different ways.

In West Michigan, students have already staged large walk outs to support nation-wide student lead movements. Some of the students who participated were at risk of earning unexcused absences, but in Grand Rapids, they’ve taken a different approach.

“We want to honor and respect the First Amendment rights of our students, but we also want to ensure students are in school on time everyday ready to learn,” John Helmholdt, GRPS Executive Director of Communication said. “What we have simply said to students and parents is if they want to participate in an exercise of their rights, we just ask parents to call in and we’ll track that activity as an excusable absence.”

This gives GRPS students a unique opportunity to express their First Amendment rights.

“We’ve made this change over the last couple of years after seeing the immersion of these massive walkouts or designated days where there is nationwide or even a worldwide approach to public policy issues,” Helmholdt said.

“Giving students and adults opportunities to voice their opinions that’s something that is part of civic engagement. It’s part of how we teach history, and how we work with students to educate them about the issues of our world. So, if that’s something that they and their parents choose to participate in, we’re going to honor and respect that and support that.”

This is a balancing act for GRPS as they navigate this new territory between honoring the rights of students while also continuing to put a heavy focus on their academic achievement. It includes participation in their “Strive for Less Than Five” absences campaign, which was implemented seven years ago.

In that time, GRPS said they’ve cut absenteeism by 63 percent, which has resulted in rising graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates across the district

At this point, there is no limit to the amount of days students can miss at GRPS for civic engagement activities, staff simply urges parents to use discretion.