How a high school student got a seat on the school board by standing up to extremists

On one of the greatest nights of his life, Shiva Rajbhandari was at the Roots Zero Waste Market. The 18-year-old climate activist from Boise, Idaho described it as “a super cool local grocery store with event space.” About 30 of his friends and supporters were there, eating “super good food”.

They were there to find out if Rajbhandari would beat incumbent Steve Schmidt – a 47-year-old engineer backed by local far-right groups – in the race for a school board seat. At around 10:30 p.m., Rajbhandari saw a tweet stating that the election results would not be announced until well after midnight.

“And then I was like, ‘OK, well, everyone can go home or you can come,'” he recalled. “And people came to my house and we watched ‘Ferris Bueller’s day off.’ And then, as it got closer to one in the morning, we turned off the TV and just started watching the live stream of the election count, which is super boring. And then finally we got the results.

At 3:10 a.m. on September 7 – a school night – Rajbhandari tweeted a selfie. It showed him, wide-eyed and smiling, surrounded by friends, campaign staff, volunteers and his father.

“I was just very humbled to be surrounded by all the people who got me to this point,” he said. Rajbhandari, a senior at Boise High School, had just been elected to the Boise School District Board of Trustees with 56% of votes.

That Sunday, Rajbhandari attended Boise Pride as an elected trustee. On Tuesday, he put on a shirt and tie, raised his right hand and took the oath.

And at 3:07 p.m. Wednesday, in the half hour he had between AP Psych and cross-country practice, Rajbhandari told HuffPost why he ran for office, why more students should run. , why it’s vital to stand up to book-banning, gun-carrying, anti-mask, and anti-LGBTQ extremists harassing school boards across the country, especially in Idaho — and why he’s been sent to the principal’s office that time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What prompted you to run?

So, first of all, I think students deserve to have a voice, and I think students belong wherever decisions are made, but especially where decisions are made in education. Across the country, 14% of large school districts have students on the school board. Having people with boots on the floor in the classroom, honestly, is a no-brainer when it comes to making educational decisions. Especially now, when there are so many nuanced issues affecting schools, and often [the numbers and statistics you read in reports] do not fully reflect the experience.

I was working with a group of students at four Boise high schools, as well as some high schools, on a collective clean energy pledge with the Idaho Climate Justice League, which is basically like a group of young people from the Sierra Club working for clean energy. for everyone. And we were trying to get a long-term sustainability plan for our district and a clean energy commitment, which – our city has already developed a very strong climate action plan – and now it’s time for our district, as one of the largest institutions, to do the same. You know climate change is the number one priority for young people around the world, so obviously it’s a big deal for schools to decarbonize and move away from fossil fuels.

“When I started being a climate justice organizer in ninth grade, they would come to our climate rallies … with AR-15s, and just stand around our rally.”

– Shiva Rajbhandari

But basically I was working with the students, and for about two years we reached out to our board members. We wrote letters, we did letters to the editor. We spoke to our electric company. We were part of our district sustainability committee. We organized the first forum of clubs in the city to include young people. We wrote about 300 postcards to the school board. We have done everything. And, you know, our school board members, it just seemed like they never had time for us. They never really responded to our emails, or if they did, you know, they kind of referred us to the sustainability committee, which we were already on. It was very frustrating.

And I remember one time in particular, I wrote a letter to the president of our school board, who I work with now, detailing our efforts and basically asking for a meeting. All we wanted to do was talk about this initiative, which has saved schools across the country a ton of money. Energy is also our second expense. So it was a big thing for our school but I never got a response – well I should say short term he wanted me to clarify – I didn’t get a response for six months to this letter , but I know he Lily the letter because a week later I was called into the principal’s office and reprimanded for contacting the board members. You know, “You have to go through the principal first, it’s a bureaucratic system”, and that was really frustrating for me…

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Last year a kid brought a gun to our high school and he was suspended for it and then the Idaho Liberty Dogs held an armed rally on the sidewalk of our school because basically the kid didn’t bring the gun to campus, he was on the sidewalk, so that’s what they wanted to show us. “Oh, we can all stand with our guns on a sidewalk outside the public high school.”

They organized this book ban case in Nampa – it was a big deal. They banned 24 pounds in Nampathree of which are on the AP Literature and Composition list, so they not only ban the books, censor the news, but they limit the competitiveness of these students with students across the country.

And then recently they tried to ban a bunch of books in the Meridian public library system. They submitted a list – I think it was like over 50 books. One of the books is “Captain Underpants”, which is a book I used to read in first grade. They are certainly not representative of the values ​​that the majority of Idahoans share, and not the majority of patrons in the Boise school district, which the election showed, I think.

And you got the impression that Schmidt didn’t reject their approval enough?

Yeah, I mean, I have the texts right here. I texted Steve – we had met before because, you know, you should always meet your opponent before running with him – but I said, “Hey, it’s Shiva. You know, I saw your endorsement, I need to know if you’ll publicly disavow this.

And he said, “Oh, I haven’t seen it yet. I will respond the same way I did with the Boise Schools Parent Association. So the way he responded with those kinds of associations was not a disavowal. It was like, ‘I’ve been endorsed by several groups, including the teachers’ union and the Boise School Parents Association, and I want to represent them all.

He never disavowed the endorsement of the Idaho Liberty Dogs. He said, “Oh, I disagree with some of their actions. I do not tolerate hatred, violence and intimidation. It was like three Facebook posts. But he never disavowed the endorsements…

Editor’s note: Schmidt’s failure to strongly rebuke the Idaho Liberty Dogs’ endorsement led Boise’s largest newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, to endorse Rajbhandari in the race.

It was really an interesting choice because, you know, Steve Schmidt, I don’t think he’s a villain. He’s not an extremist. But there were people on the board who were asking him to [disavow]. He had a PAC who sponsored his race asking him about it. Everyone agreed, “Hey, that’s really disgusting.” And he always refused to do so. And I think… what it showed was a lack of understanding of the threat that extremism poses to our districts and extremism poses to our schools in a state like Idaho, in a city like Boise, which is surrounded on all sides by districts and libraries. who are intimidated and who are forced to do these things.

And what are your plans now? Is your tenure on the board going to interrupt your college education or anything? Have you ever thought of that?

Yeah, I thought about that. I mean, I ran for the board to create a student position on the school board. I ran for mental health, climate action and teacher support. But really, I ran to be a voice for students, because those are the three issues that students see daily in their schools. We therefore need a permanent student position within the school board. And that means that when I graduate, it doesn’t make much sense for me to continue to stay on the board. So I’m still working through this with my fellow admins and administration. But I should be replaced by a student in a year.

But if the rest of the board doesn’t agree to do that, then yes, I’ll serve the full two years, and I’ll serve at full capacity. You can serve virtually ― many of our meetings are virtual. But yes, I think it would be a loss for our community not to have a student on the school board.

What is your message to students across the country who might want to do this?

My message to students across the country is to know your worth and know your collective power. I’ve never failed to be impressed with how much we can accomplish when we work together and when we demand a seat at the table, a seat we deserve. Don’t let people tell you your voice doesn’t matter, because that’s a lie. It does. And it’s so important that they’re afraid to tell you. Stand for election and demand a seat at the table. Students are the main actors in education.

And, I know you’re new to this, but you beat someone who had the approval of some extreme groups. School board members across the country face extremist groups who harass them. Do you have a message for them?

My message to administrators across the country is not to back down. Do not back down in your support for your teachers and your support for your students and your support for your schools. The people who spit this hatred are in the minority. They are the vocal minority. And my election says here in Idaho, and elections across the country show it, stick to your principles. Be relentless and stand up for your schools and stand up for what you know is right.

Martha K. Merrill