Although Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) student council presidents traditionally have a seat at the school board table, few have been as outspoken as outgoing student representatives Nikhil Kumaran and Abdulaziz Mohamed. Their last school board meeting was May 23.
It wasn’t always easy for the 18-year-olds to share their perspectives.
Whether board members were hesitant to seek their opinions or the community was reluctant to hear them, Kumaran and Mohamed said they did their best to ensure board members and SAHS administration included student voice in the decision-making process.
The pair, who were the first students of color to serve as student council presidents, set out in the fall to operate the student council as a governing body in addition to planning school events, Kumaran said.
When SAHS administration and the student body were at odds over month-long bathroom closures due to vaping and vandalism, Kumaran and Mohamed were liaisons between students and administration. SAHS administration reopened most bathrooms in mid-May, Kumaran said.
“That was a direct input from their students,” he said. “We have the ability to voice our opinions and create change within the high school we go to.”
On the other hand, the pair said they encountered resistance from some school board members. Mohamed said including student voice only benefits the district.
“We still have an active role in it and we still have a seat at the table,” Mohamed said.
“You don’t have to just sit there and look pretty,” Kumaran said. “The school board is for the school.”
School board member Jennifer Pelletier, who said she’s an advocate for student voice, agreed that Kumaran and Mohamed were more vocal than previous student representatives.
“I don’t consider them as just an ornamental role,” Pelletier said. “I think it sets an exciting precedent.”
Board member Sarah Stivland said tension between student representatives and board members came from the fact that the board has no policy outlining expectations for the student representative role.
Stivland added she thinks incoming student representatives, Khuluc Yang and Elise Riniker, as well as board members, the student council advisor and a school principal should discuss the role’s responsibilities.
“We need a policy that really encourages and clarifies what the role is,” Stivland said.
Mohamed encouraged the board to examine Hopkins High School’s framework for student representatives, which expects students to participate, in his final remarks at the May 23 board meeting.
However, Kumaran said facing pushback from the community was the biggest challenge of serving as student representatives.
In a private Facebook group called “Support Our Schools - 834 Unites,” community members posted statements that questioned the representatives’ motives for speaking out and whether they should speak at board meetings at all. Three current board members, Tina Riehle, Stivland and Liz Weisberg, are members of the group but did not post the comments.
These posts came to light in an April 5 Gazette op-ed. The Gazette also confirmed the posts’ existence through screenshots sent by a community member.
Kumaran said he was disappointed community members thought their opinions were not their own.
“Respect comes both ways,” he said. “It doesn’t only need to come from the board, it also needs to come from the community.”
During the May 23 open forum, Kumaran’s mother Sharonne Kumaran spoke emotionally about the rhetoric used by community members, citing a post that claimed student representatives verbally “attacked” a school board member.
“The reckless use of the word ‘attack’ when referring to any black man in this country, especially when it’s a lie and over-exaggerated, has always proven to be dangerous,” she said. “We, as parents, now feel like their safety has been compromised.”
Pelletier said the posts were troublesome.
“I think we failed them in that moment,” she said. “We must protect student voice for the betterment of future generations.”
Stivland added the community is not accustomed to student representatives participating as much at meetings, which speaks to the importance of creating an official school board policy.
Kumaran and Mohamed called their year as student representatives “transformative.”
“I think that we’ve made change in less than a year,” Mohamed said. “The standard has been risen.”
“Student council presidents definitely has a different meaning this year than it did last year,” Kumaran said.
Mohamed said he plans to study political science and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
Kumaran, who will also attend the University of Minnesota, said his major is undecided but he will audition for music school in October. He also hopes to attend law school eventually, he said.
Their service may have also transformed the board.
Stivland said they made an impact by raising awareness about how the board can better encourage student voice. Pelletier said she learned from their engagement and commitment.
“I’m so very proud of the courage that they had,” Pelletier said. “It wasn’t very easy and yet they continued on and they stayed true to their convictions.”
Contact Kim Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org