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Comment: Schools should encourage democracy among students

Greater Victoria schools are abandoning student elections, and what little remains has almost no resemblance to adequate representation, says a student leader.

A commentary by a representative of The Coalition for Student Democracy.

Where are the adults who still value democracy? Where are the educators who will uphold the ideals of our nation? And why do they remain silent?

In this country, democratic representation is a right, perhaps the most vital of all rights to a free people. But according to the provincial government, for those who are learning what it means to be a responsible citizen, voting is a privilege, and clearly one the educators of our district have little interest in providing.

I am a student of our public education system, and after four years in high school, I have seen the ideals of democracy trivialized and attacked by the very educators who taught me its profound importance.

My school is just the most recent of most within our district to abandon student elections, and what little remains has almost no resemblance to adequate representation.

Whether or not you believe students should choose their representatives, the future voters of our society are being deprived of the opportunity to experience the importance of a democratic system.

Not only are the majority of secondary students in Greater Victoria without a means of elected representation, it has been made clear by administrators and the superintendent that there is no intention to reinstate such policies any time soon.

For three years, I have campaigned within my school, Oak Bay High, and the school district at large to prioritize, create, and improve democratic leadership systems among students.

Over the years, what was once an expected function of schools has been increasingly diminished and trivialized as councils have lost their power and elections made sporadic.

This year, until the recent election at Vic High, only two schools had elected student leaders, a mere 30 per cent of secondary students.

I was honored to be elected student president at Oak Bay, but when I proposed we expand our elections and back them with written procedure, this was rejected by our administrators without consideration or alternative options.

The next year, the administration canceled our elections and refused to reinstate them. The only explanation offered was that democracy was a colonial ideology, incompatible with inclusivity and cultural sensitivity.

To reduce democracy down to a cultural concept and disregard its function as such is to disrespect its utility as an equalizer of people under law and representation, and disrespects all of the inspirational people throughout history who have fought for the right to vote.

In this spirit, I and my fellow advocates organized a student walkout of more than 200 Oak Bay students, after which we took the issue to the school board. I spoke at the board’s education policy meeting on Jan. 9, a video of which can be found on YouTube. Despite the broadly positive reception from the board, they have taken no action since.

One of the most concerning components of our district leadership structure is the Representative Advisory Council of Students. This committee is made up of students who have been appointed by school administrators behind closed doors to advise the superintendent.

I find no fault in the superintendent’s desire to have student advisors, however these cannot be mistaken for representatives of the students. Their identities and position are almost entirely unknown to the student body, their activities are never made public.

They act without a hint of transparency or accountability for the people they are responsible for speaking for. It flies in the face of every ideal of good governance.

Finding like-minded students from every secondary school across the school district, we set a meeting with superintendent Deb Whitten on April 6, under the collective title of The Coalition for Student Democracy.

We gathered at this meeting as students from most schools in our district, and proposed The Accord of Student Representation, a policy guaranteeing all students the opportunity to elect peer representatives.

However, we were told that the district would not agree to any such policy. When asked directly, the superintendent was unwilling to say that she thought it was important for students to elect their representatives, and that we should not expect any future guidelines pertaining to student leadership to include elections.

The question of whether we should be represented has been left to the whims of individual principals, who decide without any sort of challenge or question from students or any public source of criticism.

No matter how a school may change their policies, they have been given control over our voice, and they have most often chosen not to give us one. Instead, they have robbed us of the opportunity to practice our nation’s most important concept.

We aren’t proposing that students be given autonomy over our education and institutions, we are clearly not prepared for that.

But we never will be unless allowed to practice our responsibilities as citizens. Our administrators have painted elections as unreliable, dysfunctional, and quite possibly immoral.

And I, for one, fear that these perceptions could very well carry over onto the political system of our country in adulthood.

I recently turned 18 myself, and I am grateful for the opportunity to vote in the elections of our country.

Yet within the walls of a school, I alongside all other students find ourselves disenfranchised without the opportunity to advocate for ourselves. A graph of voter turnout will tell you that our citizens are losing interest.

More and more Canadians consider voting unimportant, at least not important enough to participate. It appears obvious to me that in the face of such a threat, the last thing our schools should be doing is arguing against electoral principles.

When did democracy become a controversial idea?

I call upon the people of our community and education system to take a stand for democracy.

All that we ask for is the opportunity to vote for peer-elected representation, as enjoyed by our teacher’s unions, the associations of our principals, and CUPE members.

After all that we’ve seen, how can the very people who taught us what a democracy means remain silent?