MISSOULA — Missoula City Council members on Monday praised local and foreign exchange students – for their activism on climate change and their dedication to better understanding other people and points of view.
And Councilwoman Julie Merritt added her praise for new Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson and his “very thoughtful” letter to middle school and high school families about this Friday’s global Climate Strike and local students’ participation in the event.
“I am pleased that we have a lot of kids interested in trying to raise awareness about our climate crisis,” Merritt said, adding her thanks to Watson for “very much not discouraging students from taking part in this” and allowing them to make up any school work they miss.
Watson sent his letter on Sunday, saying he wanted to provide students and families with factual information “to guide their decisions around participation” in events planned for Sept. 20-27. In it, he spelled out the procedures families should follow so students will be excused from school.
“Our teachers, support staff, and administrators won’t discourage or resist student efforts to participate in the climate strike events,” Watson said. “We also can’t encourage student participation in such events. School Board policy and state law prohibit employees of public organizations from participating in political speech while at work.”
That said, Watson assured families that the “school district can, and does, engage in the academic pursuit of knowledge about climate change as well as practical, implementable solutions to the problems connected with climate change.”
“We know that climate change is real,” he said, “and we are committed to doing our part to create solutions to stop its devastating impact on our planet.”
Detailing efforts already underway in schools across Missoula to address climate change, Watson said he and other MCPS leaders are “committed to engaging student leadership on this important issue in an effort to create future actionable steps.”
“Within our school environments, our first priority is to create safe learning spaces for our students,” he wrote. “This includes providing a safe environment that allows students to learn about controversial issues and develop and express educated opinions on these issues. It is reasonable that students may discuss the strike in the normal course of classroom conversation on current events or in connection with other elements of district curriculum.
“Civil discourse of controversial issues is an important part of our democratic process and as such should be practiced and encouraged in our educational environments.”
That commitment to civil discourse, in fact, drew remarks about another MCPS program – foreign student exchanges with Missoula’s sister city in Germany – from Councilwoman Heather Harp.
For the past year, Harp’s family has hosted a German exchange student, who along with his classmates will return to Neckargemünd this Friday.
Her comments Monday night began by reminding the audience that about five years ago, a German exchange student was killed in Missoula – shot by a local man who was convicted of the murder.
“Why I bring it up,” she said, “I am always kind of astounded, you take a tragic event like that and frankly most people would probably never have bothered to continue an exchange program.
“My heart is out to those who persevered, who continued to realize the value in building relationships with those you may not see eye to eye with. That sort of trust takes a long period of time to build, and it’s frustrating when I hear folks who don’t necessarily understand the value in building trusting relationships.”
Harp thanked Hellgate High teacher Lisa Moser for organizing and remaining committed to MCPS’ student exchange program with Neckargemünd – both in sending Missoula students to Germany for a year of study and bringing German students to Missoula.
Also feted Monday night for bringing disparate communities together was Soft Landing Missoula, which over the past few years has successfully integrated 300 refugees into life here.
Councilwoman Stacie Anderson encouraged local residents to participate in Welcome Week events, which continue through Sunday, and are intended to “help integrate some of the newest members of our community.”
“This is a great opportunity to come together and welcome those folks to our community,” she said. “Meet them, learn about their countries, their culture, their amazing food.”
Welcome Week will culminate on Sunday with the Missoula Come Together rally in Caras Park. Details of that celebration and other events planned this week are available online.