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US students accuse school authorities of silencing them on climate change

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Almara Abgarian
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Young woman at climate change protest holding a placard with the words "There is no planet B"

350 valedictorians had committed to including a text on climate change in their graduation speeches, but some were told the topic is “too controversial”.

In August last year, Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old environmental activist from Sweden, announced that she would be skipping school every Friday to protest against climate change.

Her mission, dubbed Skolstrejk för Klimatet (school strike for the climate), started a chain-reaction that soon inspired children and young people across the globe to become the leading voices on the climate crisis.

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In March this year, more than 1.4 million students and school children followed her example and took part in a worldwide protest to demand action from leaders. Just two months later, on 24 May, another protest took place as hundreds of thousands of young people from 110 countries refused to go to class, and instead marched on the streets of their cities, demanding change.

Some have been met with resistance. When high school students graduate in the US, a valedictorian usually gives a speech at the official ceremony. This year, the youth-led movement Class of 0000 organised a campaign which encouraged students to include a text on ‘catastrophic climate change’ in their speeches.

More than 350 young people had pledged to take part, and ask world leaders to “have plan to get to zero emissions, or get zero of our votes”. 

However, many of the students now claim that school authorities are censoring their speeches, and telling them that they will not be allowed to include the text, as the topic is considered “too controversial”.

Emily Shal, 18, is the class president at Whittier Tech high school in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She had previously read the text as part of a speech at a talent show, and was going to do the same at her graduation ceremony. However, after receiving negative feedback from school authorities, who said she was ‘rebellious’, Shal decided against it.

“The administration were very mad, they were pissed,” she said to the Guardian.

“Everyone was telling me I was in trouble, they now consider me rogue and rebellious. I was really worried about repercussions.”

Greta Thunberg at a climate change protest holding up her infamous sign that reads "Skolstrejk for klimatet" (school strike for the climate)
Greta Thunberg

She believes that her freedom of speech was ‘definitely taken away’ and that many of her fellow students feel strongly about climate change.

“The school thinks it is a political issue that shouldn’t be brought up,” Shal said.

“My freedom of speech was definitely taken away. We are tearing down our home, the Earth, and it should be our No 1 concern in the world. But it’s not.”

Similarly, another student, also 18, was chastised by her principal who said her speech “should be celebrating our [the school’s] achievements”, not highlighting the climate crisis.

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Jessica Lopez, who attends Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, was taken aback by the warning and won’t be giving her speech. Instead, her class plans to protest by wearing badges with the words “No Planet B”.

“A lot of adults blame our generation for being sensitive but we have to deal with the problems they have caused,” Lopez said.

“It’s really frustrating. We are vocal about climate change because no one else is going to do anything about it. On this issue, it feels like the adults are the children.”

Other students who were barred from mentioning climate change in their speeches included Tamara Valenzuela, who attends Albany high school in California, and Saisantosh Tiruchinapalli from Arizona.

Image: Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

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