Hot-Wiring High School

Hot-Wiring High School

The International Student Activism Alliance has been run by and for high school students since its founding in 1996. Read this report by Liza Featherstone, originally published in the June 21, 1999 issue of The Nation.


Last year Galen Price, then a freshman at Mount Tabor High in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, learned a lesson omitted from the school’s civics curriculum: If you’re 15, the Constitution may not apply to you.

The Winston-Salem School Board was considering requiring drug tests for all high school students who want to participate in extracurricular activities. What about the Fourth Amendment? Price wondered. Don’t random pee tests figure under the rubric “unreasonable searches and seizures”? But there wasn’t much Price could do as a lone objector. “People would say, ‘Do you do drugs? If not, why do you care?'” he recalls. “I don’t do drugs and I don’t plan to. That’s not what this is about.” In frustration, Price wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU put him in touch with Ben Smilowitz, a teenager in West Hartford, Connecticut. Smilowitz heads the International Student Activism Alliance (ISAA), a fast-growing student organization that is using the Internet, among other tools, to build a national political network of teenagers, many in quite isolated schools and situations.

Together Price and Smilowitz researched relevant case law. The drug-test requirement passed, but the organizing had just begun. Price started his own ISAA chapter and established it as an official school club. When he moved to West Forsyth High School in the same district, he started a chapter there as well. Although the clubs have so far been unable to stop drug testing in Winston-Salem, Price is currently looking for plaintiffs for a court challenge, and his efforts have provided the basis for anti-drug testing campaigns elsewhere. In New Jersey the State Board of Education is considering a nearly identical law; the Edison, New Jersey, ISAA chapter is gearing up for a national lobbying and public education campaign on the constitutionality of random drug testing.

The International Student Activism Alliance–run by and for high school students since its founding in 1996–has 160 chapters (at least one in nearly every state) and some 1,200 members. Although most of the problems the group tackles–administrations that won’t allow gay student clubs, lack of federal college loans, censorship and repression in schools–are domestic, the group calls itself “International” because, as Brattleboro, Vermont, state coordinator Abby Krasner explains, “the [power] issues are international.”

It’s an opportune time for such organizing. To a dizzying degree, adult social and cultural anxieties about sex, violence, race, class and tax dollars are being projected onto teenagers. Urban ills–from drugs and gangs to incivility–are summarily blamed on “hip-hop culture,” and any dark-skinned kid wearing baggy pants is treated as a criminal. The media routinely depict black and Latino boys as subhuman “super-predators” (in Princeton sociologist John DiIulio’s delicate phrase) and girls of all types as mall-rat Medeas, leaving their babies to die in restrooms or dumpsters. Minors convicted of crimes are increasingly sentenced as adult offenders, and young mothers suffer disproportionately under “welfare reform.”

While the greatest hostility is directed at minority kids who are poor or working class, the heat is on all kids, including middle-class white kids, who make up most of the ISAA’s membership. “Zero-tolerance policies” (break one school rule and you’re suspended), uniforms and dress codes, newspaper censorship, mandatory drug testing and a host of other assaults on students’ rights are on the rise–and, post-Littleton, the situation has only got worse. Jamie Rinaldi, an ISAA co-founder, says, “It’s all about quick justice. On the radio, when we debated the school-uniforms issue, people always called up to say, ‘Well, kids need discipline.’ But kids don’t want to go to school as it is–why make it even more like a prison?”

The ISAA began in the seemingly conservative setting of a Rotary Club’s International New Generations Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. “Everyone was kind of dressed up,” recalls Rinaldi, but “it turned into a big complaining session about how bad the youth situation was in America.” Together Smilowitz, Rinaldi and Abe Walker, then 15, 16 and 15, respectively, decided it was time to start a national pro-youth, youth-run organization. “We ran around the conference signing people up,” Rinaldi says, getting fifty-two members. The three decided that Smilowitz had the most time and energy, and without a power struggle he assumed leadership. Upon returning to Hartford, Smilowitz arranged a meeting with Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, to ask for help in launching the new organization. Grabarz agreed. Now the CCLU Foundation pays Smilowitz’s phone bills and copying expenses, and Grabarz, whose own experience stretches from supporting union pickets and distributing Black Panther papers as a teenager to campaigning for gay rights and national healthcare as an adult, meets with him weekly, sometimes offering organizing advice. But advice is just that. “We’re not the ACLU,” Smilowitz says. “We’re entirely student-run. And we’re not just a rights organization–we’ll work on any issue that affects students.”

The structure of ISAA is simple: Smilowitz, who runs the organization out of his bedroom and family den, is in charge, and other members are free to take on as much responsibility, initiate as many campaigns and make as many decisions as they wish. When making a decision, ISAA state coordinators (heads of chapters or clusters of chapters) never consult the entire body of the ISAA membership; they may ask Smilowitz’s advice, or they may simply hash it out with the other members of their chapter. The group is growing more decentralized–as it matures, coordinators increasingly call the shots and often don’t even tell Smilowitz what they’re doing. But no one seems to resent Smilowitz’s authority to represent the organization to the media or to decide where it stands on national issues. This summer Smilowitz will be succeeded by Galen Price, and the membership is committed to developing leaders for the future.

As soon as the CCLU got on board, Smilowitz began organizing chapters all over the country by going to youth conferences, publicizing the group through the Web and word of mouth, calling up any student he heard about who had a serious gripe. He also launched a campaign to put two high school students on the Connecticut Board of Education, a drive that galvanized students all over the state to write letters and meet with their representatives. Last May every legislator in Connecticut voted in favor of the ISAA’s bill, and the students began serving in August. But the victory was bittersweet: Members of Connecticut’s current Board of Education lobbied hard against the bill and succeeded, at the last minute, in stripping the student members of voting rights.

This year, not satisfied with such tokenism, ISAA has been pushing a bill through the legislature that would grant the student board members limited voting rights. At press time, it had passed the Senate and was expected to pass the House. The Connecticut experience has inspired students in Illinois and New Jersey to begin their own representation campaigns. Students in Vermont have a promising campaign under way; their bill has the support of the governor and numerous key legislators, including the entire State Senate Education Committee. The legislature is expected to vote on the ISAA’s bill this summer. ISAA has also placed students on local school boards in Vermont, Connecticut and Minnesota. Those gains may be even more important than the state efforts, given the far right’s continuing focus on local school boards.

But the ISAA’s chief organizational accomplishment is neither legal nor legislative. Organizing high school students is extremely difficult. Apart from being an impermanent base (students graduate), they are inexperienced and often politically uninformed. Their schedules (school most of the day; after-school jobs, sports or activities; homework in the evening) complicate political involvement. Their disconnectedness and isolation–easily caricatured as pouty alienation or angst–are rooted in the realities of their lives: their lack of mobility, frequent lack of access to people who share their concerns and passions, and relative lack of personal and political power. Adult authority over “minors” is a fundamental part of family-values ideology. Adolescents, despite their increasing classification as adults in the criminal justice system, are still treated as children–in the public sphere, at home and at school. And they don’t vote, so politicians can accommodate them enough to appeal to adults without actually extending power to them.

For overcoming teenage geographic and personal isolation, building an informed membership and creating at least a nascent sense of collective power, it is impossible to underestimate the centrality of the Internet to ISAA’s work. Every week five or six new members join through, the group’s Web site. On Monday nights ISAA gathers on America Online or other Web discussion servers, to which about half the membership subscribes. These discussions raise members’ consciousness about the issues, create a forum for students from Massachusetts to California to exchange ideas and strategies, and mobilize chatters to action. At one “meeting,” members had a spirited disagreement over whether an Ohio high school had the right to exclude an unwed mother from the National Honor Society. Within twelve hours, they were mobilizing NHS students nationwide to write letters on the girl’s behalf, and a student who initially supported the exclusion became one of the point persons for the action, having been won over by the logic of the civil rights argument.

College activists’ spontaneous road-trip culture has long nourished such cross-geographic exchanges, but pre-Internet, high school students would never have had access to them. Even if they drive, most don’t have cars and can’t just pick up and go; and few can afford long-distance phone bills. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, says “30 million households are online, and most classrooms will be within a few years, so clearly it’s a very effective organizing strategy” that ISAA pursues. Even now, a third of US teenagers use the Internet, and their use is increasing at a rate faster than that of any other age group.

Beyond exploiting the possibilities of the Internet, the group is savvy in its use of other media. In places where freedom of speech has been impinged upon, students have printed the offending newspaper articles or statements on T-shirts and worn them to class. Elsewhere, at Greenbriar High School in Evans, Georgia, Mike Cameron was suspended last year for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on a school-designated “Coke Day” (the school was hoping to win $500 in a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest). When Smilowitz read a news report about the incident, he contacted Elizabeth Palnau, the ISAA’s Georgia co-chair. The two wrote a politely derisive press release on the subject and gave interviews to the press; within forty-eight hours school officials admitted they had made a mistake, and the suspension was erased from Cameron’s record. “That’s a great way to avoid litigation,” Smilowitz says. “Make so much fun of people that they back down.”

That same week, Bryan Giles, a junior at Middletown High School in Connecticut, was suspended for wearing a dress to school. The next day a group of boys came to school in dresses as a show of solidarity and were also suspended. They were pardoned after the ISAA drew national media attention to the fiasco.

At this early point in its organizational life, ISAA is still more interesting as a phenomenon than as a model. Its reliance on the Internet, for example, raises unresolved questions. For anyone who doesn’t read and write easily, e-mail can be a difficult mode of communication. One ISAA state coordinator–for whom English is not a first language–told me he sometimes prefers to telephone his fellow activists, because his e-mails are often misunderstood. Access is an even thornier problem. As Smilowitz admits, “We get a more privileged group, kids who have AOL. Most people can’t afford it.” He’s right. Only 18 percent of Web users have household incomes under $25,000, so it’s not surprising that almost a third of the ISAA’s chapters are in Connecticut, the most affluent state in the country. After participating in a student panel at the state Capitol, Smilowitz approached a young black activist, Julian Stone of Hamden. At the end of the enthusiastic conversation, Smilowitz asked Stone if he had e-mail. “Do I have a computer?” Stone retorted. “No. Can my parents afford a computer? No.”

ISAA’s hopes for diversifying its base have been frustrated by its lack of funds–even liberal foundations shy away from youth-run groups–and, as in any organization, ISAA’s demographics influence its priorities. While urban, community-based youth organizations tend to be more concerned with police harassment, gun violence and lack of job opportunities, ISAA tends to fight the stifling aspects of suburban and small-town culture. With a more diverse group, ISAA would probably begin making connections between different kinds of antiyouth policies in interesting ways–exploring, for instance, how the criminalization of black kids hurts all kids and how the war on teenagers being waged in the criminal justice system and the crackdowns on suburban students are two sides of the same repressive coin.

The class divide is a tough one to bridge, though, especially when much of ISAA’s work emphasizes individual rights and the plight of iconoclasts such as Mike Cameron and Bryan Giles, who simply want to express themselves. ISAA has, for instance, never argued that Cameron’s suspension was a farcical and disturbing example not only of a violation of one student’s rights but of the growing corporatization of education made possible by the diminishing commitment of public resources that affects all students, particularly poor students. Indeed, ISAA recently sought corporate funding for a national conference and was rejected by every company it approached. Coca-Cola, explaining its refusal, pointed to the word “Activism” in the group’s name. While such experiences haven’t tempted ISAA to soften its image, neither have they radicalized its leaders; Smilowitz says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of future corporate support.

At times ISAA’s politics seem to fit too comfortably into an uninspiring do-it-yourselfism, in which dissent means everyone has his or her own wacky Web page and anyone can just get online. Of course, it’s also a language that gets one heard in mainstream political culture, and these students are sophisticated enough to know that. And, let’s remember, they’re still only in high school.

ISAA members often cite the civil rights movement as an influence on their own politics. Leah Nelson–who, through ISAA, fought to start a Gay/Straight Alliance at Manchester High School in Connecticut–says of the activists who began the sit-ins, “They didn’t just sit there and think, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ They sat down and protested, and it did work. And I’m inspired, not just by MLK and Malcolm X, but by the actual kids who were just a year older than me, who got on the bus and went down there.”

But in a chapter meeting discussion in the student lounge at Brattleboro Union High in Vermont, other students thought today’s activism was far more compromised, far less challenging than that of the sixties. Because it’s Vermont, many of these students were taken to protests as toddlers, and others grew up in communal households. According to Anna Hecker, “Activism is more cynical now than it used to be, more cautious. We’re trying not to get arrested when we do protests. We sort of know we can’t make a difference without appealing to other people. We’re not, like, bombing buildings.” This prompted a longhaired student named Brian Hodgdon to write “BOMB” on the agenda, item number four, after “What’s Next.”

It was a comic touch; these students know enough history to understand what the fundamental tactics of the sixties movements were. Yet they shy away from direct-action protest. The Brattleboro ISAA has been working with the National Labor Committee to raise awareness about child labor overseas, and last year it held a rally in front of Sam’s sporting goods store, Vermont’s largest Nike distributor, to protest Nike’s use of sweatshop labor. But mostly the chapter holds educational events–last year, for instance, it also sponsored a rock concert/teach-in on sweatshop labor–and lobbies the legislature. As member Colin Bentley explains: “By this point, protests have almost been overdone. I think they’ve sort of lost their edge and don’t get people’s attention.” Indeed, ISAA has staged only two other demonstrations in its three years of existence. “We try not to be too confrontational,” says Smilowitz.

All of the ISAA students I spoke with stated unambivalently that the experience of the sixties favors modest reform, that activists must focus on tinkering with the system, not reimagining it. Like earlier youth activists, they have a strong faith that those in power can simply be persuaded to do the right thing. Many say that working with ISAA has taught them that the system works. Erin Klein from Storrs, Connecticut, who was active in ISAA’s state Board of Education campaign, told me, “It’s totally changed my outlook on politics. It always seemed so shady to me.” Still, most ISAA members I spoke with weren’t hankering for careers in electoral politics, though Smilowitz does seem to be headed in that direction.

In one of Smilowitz’s meetings with the CCLU’s Joe Grabarz that I sat in on, Smilowitz earnestly proposed an idea for defeating drug testing in Winston-Salem: “We’ll say we’re a students’ rights group, so it’s against our beliefs.” He cited the precedents on his side, then pronounced confidently, “So they can’t do anything.” Grabarz was amused: “Well, Ben, just because you’re right doesn’t mean you’ll win. I mean, that’s the history of liberalism in America, being right and losing.”

When an organization’s political indignation–and public appeal–is grounded in its members’ youth, what happens when its activists grow up? Most ISAA activists assume they’ll be politically engaged beyond high school. (Smilowitz and other graduating leaders, for instance, plan to start college chapters.) But it’s far from clear what those politics will be or whether a wider progressive movement will develop to help shape them. Though there is exciting organizing happening everywhere, it is fragmented. So it’s not surprising that teenage activists are unaware of related struggles: against college tuition hikes, corporate influence on public education or unequal school funding. The ISAA already knows how to win some concrete political victories, yet its members seem uncertain about how boldly to imagine change. Jamie Rinaldi talked to me at length about the lack of school funds in his hometown of Terryville, Connecticut, compared with richer school districts in the state. But when I asked him if ISAA should fight such inequities, he said, “Well, you’d need socialism to fix it. I’d like to see that, but it wouldn’t fly.”

At a conference of the Junior State of the Union, a nationwide high school debate club, at Columbia University last year, potential recruits barraged West Virginia co-chair Anna Sale and Ben Smilowitz with questions about the ISAA. One student called the difference in spending on rich and poor schools “one of the greatest injustices” and asked what the organization’s position was. Smilowitz was uncharacteristically unprepared. “Something should be done at the state level,” he offered, “but not at the federal level; that would get crazy.” Then he added that in West Hartford “we have students bused in from Hartford–we have no problems.” The questioner was troubled: “Don’t you think…that’s not a long-term solution?”

The history of mainstream rights-based groups–gay, feminist, black–shows that many end up limiting themselves in exactly the way that ISAA is in danger of doing: politely requesting inclusion. But the history of student groups also shows that the system tends to disappoint. The Port Huron Statement, founding document of SDS, written in 1962 by students only a few years older than those in ISAA and, like them, “bred in at least modest comfort,” reflected the poignancy of disappointed faith–and its potential to politicize people. Those earlier students expressed the belief that “the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life.” They had little else to fall back on and, in that way, they were in a situation similar to ISAA’s–facing a left, and a country, with a yawning vision deficit: “Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians…is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well.”

How ISAA’s politics will evolve in part depends on the larger left, on whether there will be “any new departures” to pass on. The organization is full of clever tactics, and it is attracting hundreds of kids who know something’s wrong. The ISAA is building the beginnings of one kind of national youth movement. It’s an exciting project, but “viable alternatives,” now as in 1962, aren’t part of the national conversation, and without them it’s unclear how much even the smartest and most articulate kids can do–wired or not. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate the ISAA students. They’ve built an impressive organizational structure, won several legal and legislative victories, raised consciousness about growing national problems–all before the founders’ eighteenth birthdays. The ISAA may yet become a movement concerned with the teen mother who, under “welfare reform,” can’t afford childcare or the student whose McDonald’s supervisors make him work the late shift even on a school night. And that kid from the Columbia conference may yet get his “long-term solution.

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