Student Organizing

High School Student Organizer's Manual


This manual is being written on the brink of a campaign to challenge Mike Harris, the premier of Ontario. High school students are fighting along with unions, Indian nations, homeless, university students, and community groups, to mount a real resistance to this government. This manual was written to aid in the progression of this specific campaign, but we hope that it will reach further than this one fight, further than the borders of Ontario itself, and continue to help student organizers in the future.

The purpose of this manual is to inspire high school organizers, by explaining the fundamentals of organizing a walkout, showing some of the actions that are possible for youth to engage in, and to explain the theory behind walkouts and other actions. And we'll try to do it with out completely boring you to death too!


How to Organize a High School Walkout

Organizing a walkout is a straightforward operation. The basic idea is that you pick a date and time and explain your cause. Then you just have to make sure that as many students as possible know. If you let students know that a walkout is happening, then you can bet that they'll walkout.

At some schools the administration has more control over students than at others. But the conditions for walkouts seem to exist in almost every school. School does not address the real needs of students. It is often under-stimulating and there are many places students would rather be. Even if students aren't walking out for the specific political reasons organizers have planned, the action of walking out is inherently political, and should be encouraged for this reason.

Spreading the word

To make sure a walkout happens, the most important thing is to publicize the fact that one is being planned. The most common way is handing out a leaflet or handbill with the time, date and possibly a rallying point. Even if the number of leaflets you hand out is a fraction of the total student population, you can be sure that the information will be spread by word of mouth. A buzz is often created to the point that everyone knows.

Some other ways of getting the word out range from putting up posters in and near the school, especially in the stalls of the bathrooms where they will stay up longer, to slipping leaflets and handbills into student lockers, to holding teach-ins in the days leading up to the walkout, or as one person did, getting up on a table in the cafeteria and giving a speech. To stop propaganda from being removed, the date and time of one walkout was scrawled on the bathroom mirror in lipstick. On the morning of the walkout, cover the blackboards in every room in the school with slogans and information.

There are tons of other very simple tactics you can employ. Post information about walkouts on the desktop of all the computers in your school: labs, libraries, classrooms etc. If computers are hooked up to the Internet, make a 1-page website with walkout information and make it the homepage that loads every time someone opens their browser. Some schools host night school classes. This is an ideal time to do propaganda blitzes if you're worried about being caught. Just remember to be quiet.

Another more daring tactic is taking over the school intercom system and announcing the walkout. To pull this off in one school students barricaded themselves inside the room where the announcements were made.

One of the rewards of organizing in schools is that you are forced to talk to kids you might otherwise never speak with. Schools are built on segregation; students are separated by grade, by race, and by cliques. When you engage in high school organizing you are forced to break those barriers and challenge your assumptions about others. When spreading the word, speak to everyone, not just those whom you know.

The time for walkouts

What time of day should you plan the walkout? The easiest time to hold a walkout is between classes or at lunch. If you call the walkout during class, you need to know that students are willing to be openly rebellious. Students have to get up and leave class right in front of their teacher with the faith that others will follow them. It is much harder to pull off this sort of walkout, but also that much more satisfying and disruptive to the functioning of the school.

One tactic to help build walkouts that take place during class time involves a team of kids running through the hallways, opening doors and announcing the walkout to each class. While requiring generous amounts of both stealth and speed, this is often an easy and effective way to get students right out of class.

Timing the walkout is also important if you plan to meet up with a demonstration or other event. You may need to leave yourself a large amount of time to get where you're going. Things always take longer than expected, and something always goes wrong. If there's an action to follow, it'll help determine what time you choose to plan the walkout for.

So once you walkout where do you go?

Once you walkout you are faced with the question of "what to do now?" This is often the toughest question facing organizers of walkouts. While the walkout is an action/protest in and of itself, most walkouts have a specific action/protest/rally for students to congregate at, after they have left school. This also heightens the political impact of the walkout, and legitimizes (in some sense) the exodus from school.

Some walkouts are planned to co-ordinate with or compliment other events. For example, meeting up with a rally being organized by another group. In this case, the work is mostly done for you. You might also want to organize a rally or protest of your own. If you do organize your own rally, remember that students get bored listening to dry speakers, chanting tired slogans, or being at a lame, watered-down demonstration just like everyone else. Make sure to include elements of creativity and spontaneity, but be realistic in what is possible.

Many rallies take place in a location away from the school , while others happen just outside of it. These are especially powerful when you're protesting problems that come right from within the school. At many suburban and rural schools there just isn't anywhere in walking distance to go to. The main strength of
walkouts just to the front of the school, is that you don't lose any students who wouldn't have traveled far to go to some rally. You've got the numbers there, so make use of them.

Whether you are protesting at a corporate headquarters, government office, or at your school you can cause a lot of ruckus with a large amount of students. Don't be afraid to be confrontational. If you're up against something that's pissed you off, to the point of organizing a walkout, don't let some foolish sense of respectability restrain you. Let it out, you have a right to be mad!

Even if they don't rally

Don't get discouraged if only a fraction of the students who walked out actually came to a protest or rally, few usually do. Students are already bored and apathetic towards the standard methods of protest. Even if your action is totally awesome and exciting and students are still shying away from it, this isn't grounds to write them off.

Even the most apathetic student who walks out is exerting their political force. The sheer fact that school is often such a deadening place to spend one's day is reason enough for someone to walkout. Students are more than happy to leave school even if they have no idea what the political backing for the particular walkout is, because for the most part, students hate the institution of school itself. Don't dismay at those who leave school and head straight to the mall. Their act of walking out, under any and all terms, radically challenges the legitimacy of school in general. Come to terms with what you can expect from students, but always work for more.

What students do

While students walking out of schools is disruptive, it doesn't have the same economic impact as workers occupying an auto plant or walking off the job. The real impact of high school walkouts is often not the
act itself, but what students do once they hit the streets. For example, during the LA riots the government decided to close high schools. Without the institution holding them back, angry youth flooded the streets and actively took part in looting and rioting.

When walkouts happened in solidarity with striking support staff, students gathered for a rally and then took over an intersection outside the provincial legislature. It was blockaded and held for a significant amount of time, by students. This bolstered media coverage, helping the union in their strike.

How discipline is kept at schools

Schools are built on rules, they need rules! They need to control students and they do it through rules and grades. To run, schools need obedience, even if the rules are menial, dumb, degrading or completely
opposed to the interests of students.

The way the authorities make sure their rules are followed is by singling out individuals who resist and punishing them; an example is set as a warning to others. To run a school "effectively", the administration consistently punishes the most disruptive students in order to keep others at bay.

The way that youth have some power to challenge the rules, is to act together, united. If many students act in unity, it becomes impossible for schools to hand out punishments to everyone. Imagine a school where over half the students were suspended on the same day. It would simply never happen.

This is how walkouts work. Everyone walks out and are able to protect each other since punishing everyone would be impossible. The same is true for other forms of protest like dress down days where everyone at a uniformed school refuses to wear their uniform. But this is not only true for protests.

The everyday functioning of the school is also run this way. If enough students refused to sing the national anthem everyday, the rule could never be enforced. The more people skip school each day, the less punishment will be dished out for doing so.

Students organize walkouts for all sorts of political reasons. For better portables, in support of extra curricular activities, to get classes taught in their own language, against laws which infringe on the rights of youth, or to protest in support of different causes around the world. But as well as the stated political reasons for walking out, walkouts are an example of students exercising their power. Walkouts demonstrate how little power the school administration has over us, and in a small way the balance of power is shifted.

Principals and vice principals move quickly to reassert control over the school. But an example is set. Each example of student power is threatening to the authorities, as students begin to realize how little power the administration actually has.

How schools keep control

School administrations need to keep control. They will do what is in their power to stop walkouts. Sometimes they make announcements to the school that everyone who walks out will be punished. While they know that punishing everyone would be impossible, sometimes a threat is enough of a deterrent. The best way to avoid this is to educate each other on how walkouts work, and explain the strength in numbers.

Another way they try to prevent walkouts from spreading is by singling out and punishing the organizers, before or after a first walkout has occurred. They are unable to punish everyone, but if they punish organizers they may be able to scare anyone from organizing walkouts in the future.

There are ways that we can defend organizers. A simple way is by being discreet and covert, trying to not let the staff or administration know who is distributing all those leaflets. One way of being discreet is to flyer outside a friend's school while they flyer at yours.

Including as many students as possible in the planning stage is another idea. This makes leaders less and less important in disruptive processes, and not only that, it results in more effective and democratic actions. They are still able to target leaders, but it may make it harder for them.

If they attempt to expel an organizer you should contact a lawyer, a local legal clinic, or even a law student. It is not an actual legal proceeding but just the presence of a lawyer is often the difference between being expelled or not. In Toronto, Justice for Children and Youth offer defense for students facing expulsion. Don't worry about that too much, it is unlikely they will expel someone for organizing a walkout.

If organizers are punished it can be helpful to launch a campaign to protect them, getting other more 'established' community or student groups involved, and pledging official support. Pass a petition around, get supportive school staff and parents to speak with the administration. If the authorities know they're going to be hassled to death by going through with an expulsion or punishment, it is likely that they'll cease their crusade.

Other actions and directions in high school organizing

Walkouts are a common form of political action taken by students, but there are many other sorts of actions that students have taken. This is obviously not a complete list, since there are countless anti-school actions that students engage in everyday, but hopefully this will be inspiring, and will serve to get the creative juices flowing.

Instead of calling walkouts some organizers have called "skip off days", where students take the whole day off. This is usually not coupled with any overt political message other than "youth would rather not be in school".

In the past, students have waged larger campaigns like student strikes, where schools are shutdown for an extended period of time. Some militant students have even taken over their school.

Another action common at schools with uniforms is dress-down days. On a chosen day no one wears their uniform. These can be organized in a similar way to walkouts, just spreading word throughout the school of the date of the "dress-down day".

One group of students in the United States had started a petition to try to get better cafeteria food, but their appeals to the principal went unanswered. They held a protest in their cafeteria about the horrible food they were being served, and before long a giant food fight had broken out. To stop the incident from spreading, the principal made an announcement the next morning that they would start serving better food in the cafeteria.

At some schools you can freely distribute condoms, but at others distributing condoms has been banned, whether or not they are needed by students. In some of these schools, groups of students have been able to get large numbers of condoms donated and then distribute them freely to students. Actively breaking absurd school rules with a large group of people is always a good way to challenge the rule itself.

Another idea is creating your own school media: a zine, underground newspaper, or radio show. When 3 students decided to leave their school they wrote a letter explaining why they were leaving and suggested that other students do the same. It created a mass departure from the school (the ultimate walkout!). This idea can also be used to anonymously target teachers who are abusive, sexually harass students or are in other ways extremely heinous, and therefore unfit to teach.

When a media monopoly began infesting schools, angry students took action by starting a spontaneous graffiti campaign. They spray-painted and markered over the company advertising which was pasted all around their school, calling for advertisements to be banned from school settings. The reclaiming of space is an issue unto itself. Through public art attacks, students have taken back space in their school simply by painting all over it.

During a support staff strike, youth at various schools took action through numerous tactics to show their solidarity (in obvious ways or otherwise). Many schools were "vandalized" with toilet paper being strung up along trees, garbage cans tipped over in the hallways, and graffiti covering anything and everything. This example of student restlessness as displayed in the media gave light to the necessity of having support staff in schools. On the morning of a proposed walkout to show solidarity with the strikers, students at one school found doors into the building locked with U-locks and chains, and keyholes filled with glue. Since no one could get into the school to open up on time, the walkout did not even need to happen, and classes for the day were canceled. This approach calls for meticulous planning and the will to take a risk. Use it sparingly.

Bill 160

There were 6 or 7 of us sitting in the room. We had just decided to hold a Toronto-wide high school walkout because of Mike Harris' plans to pass bill 160; a bill that would overhaul the education system, slash funding, and increase the divisions between students, teachers and the various board's of education. We brainstormed all the schools we could think of, that we or our friends attended, or even schools where we had acquaintances who we thought might want to organize walkouts. Our list had about 20 schools where we thought walkouts were really possible.

We made posters and handbills that gave information on what we were planning. We contacted friends and visited schools. We put up posters in the bathrooms, which stayed up for a long time. At other schools we handed out leaflets the morning of the walkouts. Both ways word spread and soon everybody knew. My high school was left completely barren. Everybody walked out. Walkouts took place in over 15 schools. Small groups from each school made their way to Queen's Park, where over 500 angry students held their protest.

Later, when teachers were on strike, we organized flying pickets to support them. We met early in the morning at one school, marched on the picket lines with those teachers for a while, then marched on to another school to support the teachers there. We boosted the spirits of teachers wherever we went. We made our way to the ministry of education, passing schools along the way, and encouraging students to join us. We met up with other students who were already holding a protest at the ministry.

In the end, the union leadership backed down from their strike. Bill 160 got passed. Our actions ended essentially in failure. But even as it was being passed, students spontaneously walked out and protested outside Queen's Park. When the bill passed we blocked traffic on Queen's Park Circle, and disrupted the legislative reading of the bill.

While walkouts and student disruptions are no sure way to settle demands (let alone challenge bills being passed in parliament), they are an important tactic of direct refusal to those things that threaten or qualitatively impoverish the lives of students. Even in overall failure, it is important to recognize the victories that were won. We radicalized an unknown amount of students, and forged massive links of solidarity in the process.


Youth are robbed of their dignity. We are bored and unstimulated by school. They are not run in our best interest and they don't teach us some of the things we need most. We have little access to things we
need to enrich our lives and better ourselves. We are viewed as criminals and it makes us targets of harassment from the police and other authorities.

We need to struggle so all of us can live with dignity. We struggle to make our lives better. School can be a degrading place and we need to fight against that. Students have a lot of power. Just organizing walkouts and protest with that power is not enough. We need to find ways to actually solve the problems we face in our lives. Walkouts can be a part of that, but we need to find creative, bold and long-lasting solutions if we are serious about radically changing school as we know it.

Fight to win!

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