Thousands of Vermonters marched out of their schools, jobs and homes on Friday, Sept. 20, to be part of the Global Climate Strike — a reaction to widespread failure to combat climate change.
Students, in particular, blasted their elders for failing to take the crisis seriously, and threatening to leave them a world in tatters.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” said 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in a speech at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City on Monday. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Students of all levels, from elementary schools to colleges to graduate schools, marched, spoke, held signs and, in Montpelier, staged a die-in in the middle of the capital city’s busiest intersection.
But it wasn’t just Vermont, and not just the United States. An estimated 4 million people all over the world joined the youth-led call for climate action.
The idea was to disrupt business as usual, drawing attention to the climate crisis just ahead of a United Nations emergency climate summit — a summit meeting that President Trump abruptly left.
Here are snippets of what happened in this part of Vermont.
Students walk out at Peoples Academy
In Morrisville, at least 100 students walked out of Peoples Academy late Friday morning, Principal Phil Grant said.
Carrying signs, students left the school at 11:15 a.m., walked down Copley Avenue to the monuments at Park and Elmore streets, and listened to speeches by two students.
The entire event took less than the 30 minutes students had planned for it, Grant said, and they quickly returned to school and their normal schedules.
“It was thoughtfully organized by students, for students, and it was a very respectful process,” Grant said.
The march occurred during the school’s flex time, not regular class time, so there was “minimal disruption to learning,” Grant said. Staff members made make sure students remained safe while they marched.
“At Peoples Academy, we understand that our students may be feeling lots of anxiety, fear and even anger about climate change,” Grant wrote in a prepared statement posted to the school website Friday. He stressed that the march was voluntary, and students could remain in school if they chose.
“We respect the right of our students to advocate for causes that are important to them and support their efforts to do so in an authorized and orderly manner while at school,” he said. “We thank our students for the way they conducted themselves today while allowing their civic voices to be heard.”
The walkout was planned by a student-led group, One Small Action, following Thunberg’s lead by raising awareness about the need for climate action.
“The event is an opportunity to start a respectful conversation,” Grant wrote before it happened.
‘Pretty powerful’ at Lamoille Union
A student-led walkout at Lamoille Union middle and high school and GMTCC in Hyde Park occurred at 10 a.m. on Friday.
“A lot of people attended. I think it was pretty powerful,” Maggie McGee, a sophomore who helped organize the event, told the Lamoille North school board Monday night.
Lamoille Union principal Brian Schaffer estimated 200 students walked out.
“The event went off without a hitch,” Schaffer told the board. “It was a proud moment as a principal, to see the students take control.”
The walkout lasted for just eight minutes, enough for brief remarks from half a dozen students.
But that didn’t end the conversation, McGee told the school board; she heard students talking about climate action all day Friday.
One school board member asked why the walkout wasn’t held when it would have disrupted fewer classes.
“We thought it would be more powerful, interrupting a class,” McGee replied.
Schaffer had met with student leaders earlier in the week and said it was clear early on “that the students had the majority of the leverage. They wanted to plan and coordinate it, and get the word out.”
Johnson’s wee activists
The next, next generation also took to the street in Johnson to march for climate change awareness.
Here’s a report from Kyle Nuse, one of the organizers (lightly edited):
“More than 20 children — some of them leaving school early — marched with their parents from Johnson Elementary School to the Village Green chanting “Our Home, Our Future!” while holding signs and playing instruments.
“The group, which numbered 50 at its peak, gathered on the green to make signs and murals and participate in climate education activities, led by organizers Nuse and Lucia Green-Weiskel, such as reading books about how to use less energy in our lives, recycle, compost food waste and conserve water.
“I am aware that there are people out there who are critical of the strike,” Green-Weiskel said. “They don't think it’s a good idea for children to miss school or they felt that organizers were frightening children about the world ending or somehow exploiting them to support ideas they are too young to understand.
“I want to reassure everyone that these events — ours and others like it — were nothing like that. They were occasions for solidarity, empowerment, age-appropriate education and sharing. And I believe experiences like these serve as a gateway to our young people to become more involved in the political process, locally and internationally, in the future,” Green-Weiskel said.
“While climate change is scary, these events serve as an antidote to that fear. It reminds us how many people care, how we can do big things together, and it teaches our children that they can be leaders and that we adults are listening.
At Stowe High, students stymied
A Stowe 10th-grader decided missing a soccer game — her team won anyway — was worth the walkout, and has expressed to climate change activists her frustration at the school’s obstacles to student organizing.
Sarah Evans wrote a letter to 350.org slamming the school’s position, which she called “disgraceful.” In the letter, she said the principal asked her to stop hanging up posters around the school because “she will have to talk to the entire school about (how) no one is allowed to go to the strike unless they are willing to not be excused from classes and not be allowed to play in sports.”
Sarah said similar previous demonstrations meant to draw attention to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ issues also failed to materialize, writing, “The steps and hoops to jump through to make them happen, along with a lack of guidance or assistance, is frustrating and makes me and other students angry.”
“It is frustrating to be the No. 1 high school in Vermont, and yet the problems at our school are undeniable and frankly embarrassing,” she wrote. “My mission is to create and develop a school worthy of holding the ranking of the No. 1 public high school in Vermont.”
A letter from principal Gretchen Muller, sent out the afternoon before the protest, stated that students, “per the handbook,” would be marked absent if they walked out. Athletes would have to skip that day’s practice or game. She wrote that students had attempted to organize an event, but “they decided not to continue these efforts.”
Sarah’s parent, Taylor, said the school administration told her there was a list of things to accomplish “before this could be a school-sanctioned event.” She requested the list, but was never given it, she said.
“I got a little bit ticked. This is one of the most important issues to our country,” she said. “You would think that, with the education and demographics, this would be a community that is rallying behind this.”
Sarah and some friends held their own mini-rally, anyway, and she was subsequently barred from playing in that afternoon’s soccer game on the road against Northfield/Williamstown.
Neither Muller nor superintendent Tracy Wrend responded to requests for comment by deadline.
Muller wrote in her letter, “Student voice and engagement is an important part of a student’s experience in school. I value student voice and encourage students to communicate with me their ideas so that we can collaborate and support each other throughout the school year. Students have several options for working with faculty and administration to plan, safe, respectful events as well as engage in personalized studies and projects that allow students to explore their interests and passions.”
Taylor said she’s proud of her daughter, and even though Sarah loves soccer and loves school, she really loves the planet.
“This is not about ‘we want a different flavor ice cream in the cafeteria. This is important stuff,” she said. “It’s a shame that, in my opinion, the adults dropped the ball. Which is what we adults have been doing all along.”
Reporters Josh O’Gorman, Andrew Martin and Tommy Gardner contributed to this story.