Late in the afternoon of November 4, Berkeley High School sophomore Alecia Harger received a disturbing text message. Someone had discovered a horrific, racist message that an unknown individual had left on a school library computer that day. A student sent Harger, co-president of the school's Black Student Union (BSU), a screenshot of the frightening threat that was starting to circulate among students. The message stated, in part: "KKK forever public lynching December 9th 2015" and "I hung a [n-word] by his neck in my backyard."
"I couldn't believe that this was something that somebody would actually write," recalled Harger, who is fifteen years old, in a recent interview. "We always talk about racism in Berkeley. ... But I didn't expect that there could be such acute racism, such anti-Blackness in our community."
Once the initial shock wore off, Harger realized how scared she felt for herself and other Black students. She and other BSU leaders decided they needed to mobilize a response as quickly as possible; the image was spreading on social media, and students deserved information from a reliable source, Harger said. Administrators hadn't yet issued any statement. That evening, the BSU fired off a press release warning of the "act of blatant terrorism towards the Black students and staff members at Berkeley High." The statement also demanded that administrators and the Berkeley Police Department address the threat (which officials later determined came from a student).
The next day, the BSU helped facilitate a massive walkout that drew thousands of students to the streets of Berkeley — and national media attention. "This is an opportunity not just for the Black community to heal together, but also to let our message be heard on a greater scale," Harger said of the protests.
The actions of the BSU — including a series of student-led events and assemblies on December 9, the day cited in the original message — capped off a year of high-profile student protests in the East Bay. High school activists in Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond have used Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube to strategically coordinate marches and protest events and to pressure school officials and politicians to respond to their widely circulated messages. Armed with viral hashtags that have helped unify student organizers and attract substantial media coverage, teen activists have launched rallies calling for equitable resources for struggling public schools, actions opposing potential school closures, and protests against police brutality.
"I feel like we had a very big impact," said Loata Fine, who in the spring graduated from Fremont High School in East Oakland and is now studying political science and public service at UC Davis. Fine, who is eighteen years old, helped coordinate a series of protests this year at Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) public meetings concerning a controversial plan to overhaul five schools, including Fremont High.
As part of OUSD's so-called "Intensive Support Schools Initiative," the district solicited proposals to revamp the targeted schools, including allowing outside, private charter school operators to submit applications. The process prompted an intense backlash: Some teachers, students, and parents feared that the potential charter takeovers would only further erode the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. At Fremont High and McClymonds High School in West Oakland, another school identified for turnaround, students repeatedly spoke out at meetings and played a significant role in calling for increased transparency and student input in the process.
"We indicated that we cared about the school and that these decisions heavily impact us," recalled Fine, noting that students used the #IAmFremont hashtag on Twitter to get alumni and others interested in the cause. "We showed them that we were not going to back down." After numerous protests in which students gave thoughtful and passionate speeches in front of large crowds at school board meetings, the district made a more serious effort to reach out to students and let them voice their concerns and offer perspectives on potential reforms, Fine said. "They actually began attempting to work with faculty and students," said Fine, who later took on a role as a student delegate in the process.
Ultimately, charter school operators did not take over any of the five schools.
This year's student-driven protests weren't just limited to internal school politics and conflicts. On November 17, dozens of students at Castlemont High School in East Oakland used a coordinated walkout to help shine a light on a fatal police shooting of a man allegedly armed with a fake gun. A video of the protest that circulated on Twitter showed a crowd of students chanting "Stop police brutality!" after they marched out of class to an intersection near the school where days earlier a group of Oakland cops days had shot and killed the man (who OPD later identified as 39-year-old Richard Perkins). The rally was one of many this year in Oakland in response to violent OPD incidents — but it was notable for the role youth played in organizing the event.
Meanwhile, at East Bay Arts High School in Hayward — a public school within the San Lorenzo Unified School District — sustained student protests this fall appear to have played an important role in blocking the proposed closure of the magnet arts school. "We made it such a publicized issue, and that really made a big difference," said junior Doug Richman, who helped reach out to reporters in September when students and teachers first learned that the district's superintendent, Fred Brill, was proposing an imminent shutdown of the school.
Richman and other students drove news coverage highlighting the consequences of the potential closure and spoke up at public meetings. Eventually, officials decided to delay the plan, and the school board ultimately voted unanimously this month to keep the school open. Brill also reversed his position and recommended against closure, saying he was deeply impressed by "the passion and the commitment and the advocacy and the love coming from this community," according to the Contra Costa Times. He told students at the board meeting: "You guys made me cry many times in this process."