Riverside Brookfield High School senior Paul Centorcelli heard from his mother about the youth led Climate Strike on Sept. 20 just a day before the event that took place on Friday. He has always cared about the environment and animals so he decided he wanted to get involved in the Climate Strike that was inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
Instead of going to the downtown march and rally, Centorcelli decided to organize a walkout at RBHS the next day to raise awareness about global warming.
“My plan was just to spark up a conversation about global warming,” Centorcelli told the Landmark.
He got to work on social media and stayed up until 2 a.m., posting on sites such as Instagram and Snapchat about the walkout, which he decided would take place during the fifth-period lunch.
About 30 students joined him and walked out of the school at 12:30 p.m. on Friday under the watchful eyes of school administrators. The students walked across Golf Road into the football stadium and walked around the track for about 15 minutes and talked about climate change and related issues.
“It went well, really well, actually,” Centorcelli said.
Another senior who participated in the walkout was disappointed in the number of students who walked out.
“I don’t think it achieved much,” said senior Tyler Fischer.
Administrators at the school learned of the impending walkout Friday morning and scurried to prepare for it and discourage participation in it. Centorcelli was pulled out of his first-period world literature and composition class to meet with Principal Hector Freytas, Assistant Principal Dave Mannon and deans Neil Dughetti and Dave Sibley.
The administrators were upset that they did not have advance notice of the walkout.
“They just were really pissed that it was spur of the moment thing,” Centorcelli said, noting that Freytas seemed the most supportive administrator.
If they had advance notice of the walkout or interest in the issue, Freytas said, the school could have worked with students to create an activity around the event.
“We’re supportive of students having a cause, but how they express themselves, we want to be included and maybe the right space for this wasn’t a walkout,” Freytas said. “It came as a surprise to me. I like partnering with my students, partnering with my teachers.”
Centorcelli admitted that it would have been better had he done more advanced planning, but he felt that school administrators could have been more supportive.
“I should have planned it out a lot but some things you should be flexible with,” Centorcelli said.
Administrators contacted local police departments and a Brookfield police car was at the high school during the walkout to maintain safety.
School officials decided that anyone who walked out would be given an unexcused absence, a cut, and they made that known to students. Seniors with no unexcused absences are exempted from having to take final exams. Only three seniors participated in the walkout.
“That definitely scared off a lot of seniors from doing this,” Centorcelli said.
But Centorcelli said he was not deterred by the prospect of having to take final exams this year.
“It’s just the bigger picture you have to focus on,” he said. “It’s high school versus global warming.”
Some RBHS students and other local residents went to the downtown rally that began at Grant Park and marched to Federal Plaza.
Attendance at RBHS was 2 to 3 percent lower on Friday than the day before, Freytas said.
One RBHS student said that she knew of at least 15 RBHS students who went to the march and rally downtown.
Tom Jacobs, a longtime climate change activist and member of the District 208 school board, was at the downtown march and rally, which drew an estimated crowd of between 1,500 and 3,000 people.
“In my opinion, teenagers like Greta Thunberg who have the courage to speak truth to power are the true and urgently needed leaders of our time,” Jacobs said in an email. “If we adults are honest, we have to admit that we have not made enough progress, and that the youth have succeeded in ways we have not.”
Jacobs, who made promoting student civic engagement a main focus of his school board campaign earlier this year, declined to comment when asked what he thought of the walkout at RBHS.
Some members of the Brookfield Indivisible Group attended a rally in LaGrange Friday morning that drew around 150 people.
Centorcelli said that he is just getting started. He wants to create events to promote more awareness of climate and environmental issues and encourage more walking, biking, and carpooling and less energy use.