Young girl holding protest sign

Students can take one day off from school to help with a political event, protest or otherwise get involved with civics.

FAIRFAX – When most think about people actively involved in politics, Virginia students aren’t typically at the top of the list. However, one Fairfax County teen broke the mold when he pushed for legislation – and won.

When Matthew Savage was in the first grade, he had an assignment that sparked his interest in politics. He studied about President John F. Kennedy.

“That kind of got me more and more interested in politics and history and the history of the Democratic Party and what we’ve stood for over the last century,” Savage said. 

His political activism grew from there. Now, he’s the Teen Caucus Chair of the Virginia Young Democrats.

Recently, the 17-year-old junior at Marshall High School in Fairfax helped pave a way for other students across the state to participate in meaningful civic engagements. He did so through House Bill 1940, which grants students at least one excused absence per school year for a civic event. 

From the Classroom to the Capitol

At 17, Savage is currently ineligible to vote. He cannot hold public office. He’s 13 years away from the age requirement to run for governor and 18 away from any presidential campaigns. 

So how, exactly, did a teenager get involved in his state’s political sphere? 

Savage had the opportunity because of a rule that Fairfax County Public Schools implemented a couple of years ago. In 2019, the district granted students an excused absence to participate in a civic event.

Without the trepidation of missing important assignments looming, Savage and his classmates made their opportunity worthwhile.

“It was a successful policy. It energized students to get involved, and I’ve seen that in my classroom,” Savage said. “Students at my school, I think the very month that the policy took effect, went to the United States Capitol during their day off to lobby Unites States senators to remove the deadline for the ratification of the ERA.”

The new policy helped students engage with politics in a real way, outside of what they read in a textbook. 

“So we were able to energize high school students who were in government class, but they got to get a firsthand sense of their government and how they could make a difference because of this policy,” Savage said.

Virginia Students Get A Day Off

Falls Church City Public Schools implemented a similar policy to their nearby Fairfax neighbors.

Dr. Peter Noonan, superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools, explained why.

“Students who are learning about civic engagement in a classroom is, to begin with, sort of an artificial environment because they’re not able to actually practice what they’re learning unless they get outside of the classroom,” Noonan said. “I think, actually, the learning that happens outside of the classroom by asking students to civilly engage reinforces all of the things that they’ve learned through our history and social studies curriculum here in Virginia, and certainly in the City of Falls Church.”

The policy encourages practicing First Amendment rights and engaging in matters that the students feel passionately about.

“It really gives students an opportunity to explore their passion and also put that passion to work,” Noonan said.

To request a day off for civic engagement in Falls Church City, a parent or guardian simply calls the school and informs leaders of the student’s activity.

“If it’s for civic engagement, it’s marked as an excused absence,” Noonan said.

The superintendent further expressed that the division is open to what students might consider civic engagement. One example of time off students requested involved engaging with the elderly at senior living homes. Others involved participating in marches and protests, volunteering at blood drives and working with local government officials for the day.

“We are fairly open and have a lot of latitude for that because what is civic engagement for one person might not be civic engagement for another,” Noonan said. 

Becoming Law

The school divisions experienced success with their new policies, which drew national attention.

On Jan. 11, Del. Sam Rasoul introduced House Bill 1940. The bill proposed that Virginia students have at least one excused absence per school year for a civic event.

“One of the things I think we boast about in America [is] the right to vote, our freedom of opportunity, the right of everyone to participate in democracy,” Savage said. 

However, most legislation – whether at the local, state or federal level – occurs predominantly in daytime hours, when school is in session. 

“If you’re going to get an opportunity to influence them, influence their decision making, to get involved with them, you’re not going to be able to do that on the weekend,” Savage said. “Or you’re not going to be able to do that after school. At least, not as effectively. And you’re not going to get a real sense of what your government is.” 

Savage used his day off for civic engagement to testify before the Virginia House of Delegates’ Education Committee on HB1940.

When the bill became law, the 17-year-old celebrated with a can of ginger ale, rather than the traditional champagne.

“I’m immensely grateful to be a Virginian, where we’ve been able to lead this effort,” Savage said. “I’m very proud of what the Commonwealth of Virginia has been able to accomplish and I’ve been proud to be involved in it.”

Noonan also expressed excitement over the new law.

“We’re really excited, always, to see the curriculum that we teach come to life,” Noonan said. “This is just another example of how what we teach in schools can be translated into communities.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com