Updated May 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

High school students join Gaza protests and Congress is watching

Illustration of hands raised in a classroom with the central hand clenched into a protesting fist.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It's not just colleges: Across the U.S., high school students have been protesting the war in Gaza — and Congress is paying attention.

Why it matters: Young people under the age of 18 have been organizing demonstrations, sit-ins and walkouts at their schools, where the academic year typically extends into June.

  • "Their generation is really defined by a lot of these global protest movements," said Versha Sharma, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue.

What's happening: High school students across the country have made efforts to demonstrate since the arrests at Columbia University — although some have been thwarted by city or academic authorities.

State of play: For the first time, leaders of K-12 public school districts in a few liberal cities testified Wednesday before the same GOP-led House committee that's grilled the presidents of Harvard and Columbia.

  • The public school officials from Berkeley, California, New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland, rebuffed accusations that they've tolerated antisemitism at their schools.
  • They were called to account for their response to incidents such as students protesting against a pro-Israel teacher at an NYC high school.
  • In Berkeley, the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a complaint against the city's public schools over what they describe as "severe and persistent harassment" of Jewish students. The New York Times reported Berkeley residents who back Israel buttressed the complaint.

At one point, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) — who has grabbed headlines for her interrogation style at these hearings — questioned New York City Public Schools Chancellor David Banks on discipline toward students who have walked out.

  • He responded that the walkouts, which have mostly happened at the high school level, are "very troubling" but there are no stipulations in the code of conduct that prevent a student from walking out.

Between the lines: School district administrators largely gave specific responses to their handling of incidents brought up by legislators, defending their protection of students and their districts.

  • They also turned some of the questioning back to lawmakers. Banks called on the legislators to act beyond holding these hearings.

Zoom out: Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Gen Z has been significantly more likely to criticize Israel than older age groups. On TikTok, views on pro-Palestinian posts far surpass views of pro-Israel posts.

  • The Hamas attack killed at least 1,100 people. Since then, at least 34,000 people have died in the war in Gaza, according to local health authorities.

Too young to vote, high school students have called for a ceasefire in Gaza and the end of U.S. aid to Israel.

  • "At the end of the day, systemic changes need to be made, and it's hard for high schoolers to do that," said Hala Elamine, 17, who has been involved in pro-Palestinian activism at her D.C.-area school that led to a lawsuit.
  • "But I think it's really important that we're doing what we can even though we're younger."

The big picture: Youth activism played a role in shaping the 2020 racial justice movement as well as #NeverAgain after the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist who rose to global prominence at 16, has also shown that age needn't influence political involvement.

  • On Instagram and TikTok, young users have seen content coming directly from Palestinian journalists and creators documenting the lived experienced in Gaza.
  • "They're seeing the effects of this war on their social media feeds every day in a way that I think older generations are not," Sharma said.
  • "That fuels their sense of urgency and this kind of disbelief about 'why have the adults in the room allowed this to go on for so long?'" she said.

Go deeper: What pro-Palestinian protesters on college campuses want

Editor's note: This story was corrected to show Greta Thunberg is a Swedish (not Swiss) climate activist.

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