Right now, hundreds—maybe thousands—of teenagers are enjoying their successful pilgrimage to the desert of Indio, California, some hundred miles East of Los Angeles, for the first of two weekends of sweat, music, drugs, and Lindsay Lohan at the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival. They're supposed to be in high school. And back in L.A., administrators and teachers at some of the top schools that have struggled to contend with the empty classrooms of Coachella Fridays are finally learning how to deal with absence in the age of the music festival. The rite of Southern California spring, these educators say, is now something of an acknowledged right.
At one of these elite Los Angeles prep academies, Harvard-Westlake School (also this writer's alma mater), the Upper School administration instituted an official Coachella detention policy this year—not so much a punishment as a way for students to own up to taking a ditch day. At the private Crossroads School, students are not even expected to show up today, since administrators purposely scheduled a grading day around the first of two festival weekends. The upper school director at Brentwood School tells The Atlantic Wire that the festival had presented such a "big muddled kind of mess" that it instituted an unexcused absence rule for Coachella last year. One English teacher at Palisades Charter High School, a public school, Steve Klima, told us that "Coachella weekends become just one of those things you have to plan around."
The all-ages festival is what the Los Angeles Daily News this week called a "cultural event," buoyed by social media and no doubt thousands of young music fans who see Coachella as an unmissable California day party. "I kind of understand that for a lot of them it's—maybe not once in a lifetime—but a pretty exciting thing to be able to go," said Klima. In 2011 the L.A. social diary Daily Truffle wrote that the number of Los Angeles private school students in attendance make Coachella "more than a weekend trip; it's a mass migration." Last year, when the 14-year-old festival expanded to two weekends with identical lineups, Harvard-Westlake's student newspaper, The Chronicle, reported that 111 of approximately 900 high school students were absent on the first Friday of the first weekend of Coachella—and that 60 students were absent the following Monday. Klima estimated that, in his 12th grade honors class at Pali High, 25 percent to 35 percent of students go missing for the festival's opening day, depending on the year. And then, Klima added, a teacher might have to deal with the "Monday hangover," since the festival begins on Friday afternoon but doesn't conclude until well after midnight on Sunday, this year with the Red Hot Chili Peppers taking the stage at 10:15 p.m.
And these high school students—many of them second semester seniors, and not all from the privileged circle of L.A. private schools—are not going on the cheap: the most basic festival passes for each weekend run $349, not the kind of money any kid can get sneak out of her parents' bank account. Indeed, parents have been implicitly involved in Coachella Fridays; in a letter addressed to the matriarchs and patriarchs of Harvard-Westlake's upper school students earlier this month Associate Head of School and Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas wrote: "In the past, many Coachella Friday absences reported to Gabe were associated with illness, travel to visit relatives and other family obligations. These, of course, were excused absences with no imposed consequences. But the significant numbers of absent students imposed consequences on others."
Barzdukas went onto explain that the school would be adapting a tough-love policy with Coachella this spring, one that acknowledges that students will go missing on that day, but also give them a slap on the wrist.
We feel that among the most valuable lessons we teach is that choices have consequences. So this year, we are instituting our “Take Pride in Honesty and Own It” Coachella absence policy. We ask that families who choose to have their children miss school to attend Coachella report the absence to Gabe as “missing school to attend Coachella.” The consequence for doing so will be a single detention. That’s the trade-off: if you choose to go to Coachella, and are honest about it, then you serve a school detention. We feel this policy is in keeping with our school’s commitment to good character and honor.
Harvard-Westlake hasn't always been so strict with their policy. Last year, then-senior Judd Liebman complained about the school's unofficial two-year policy of excused absences for students who missed class for Coachella: "Turns out, our attendance policy is more simple than I thought: come to class unless your parents sign off on you missing, no matter the excuse." Liebman told the Wire that students were getting parental consent to attend the festival—and would get off scot-free from the school when they ditched class. Even though he says he's "totally fine with Coachella," he remembers being one of only six students left in an AP government class.
The response to Harvard-Westlake's new Coachella policy has been positive, Barzdukas, the upper school head, said in an interview, and the school even got pre-Coachella calls from students admitting their plans to travel to the festival.
The Upper School Director of the nearby Brentwood School, Bob Cooke, explained that there existed a certain inequity before the school developed an "unexcused" absence policy last year. Some kids were telling the truth about where they were on Coachella Friday. Other kids were lying. Some teachers were lax. Others were tough. The consequences of missing school could be huge, or basically nonexistent. The new policy, in which students are not allowed to make up any schoolwork they miss for attending the festival, has had an effect, Cooke said: fewer juniors missed class, he said, and he found that more seniors—who have one foot out of the door and into college anyway—were missing only part of the day. (Coachella performances began just before noon on Friday, but bigger indie acts don't appear on stage until later in the afternoon.)
Jeryldine Saville, the director of communications at Crossroads, told the Wire that the private school's administration had planned their spring grading day around the first Coachella weekend, and that educators expected students to miss school today. "It was just kind of a clever way to put the two together," Saville said. The school sent a letter out to parents suggesting that if their children were getting tickets for the festival, they should purchase them for its first week. Students are required to be on campus next Friday.
And while the experience of Klima, the English teacher at Pali High, have left him with diminished classrooms, Monica Iannessa, the director of admissions and attendance at the public high school, said it would maintain a strict policy, whether classrooms were empty or not: "Coachella? No-chella," she said.