Concern over gun violence in schools, elevated in the national consciousness by the killing of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, is raising student activism nationwide to levels not seen since protests over civil rights and the war in Vietnam a half-century ago.
The first indication of the breadth and depth of this student-generated movement will come Wednesday, the one-month anniversary of the Florida shootings, with the National School Walkout.
The walkout is a coordinated campaign to have students walk out of their schools at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes – one minute in memory of each of the Parkland victims – as a way of advocating for an end to gun violence.
This initiative differs from the protests of the ’60s in two significant ways: this time, activities are focused more on high schools than on colleges, and school officials are less likely to restrain the walkouts than were administrators of two generations ago.
“We encourage our children to be involved in civic activities outside an inside school,” explains Greg Meece, head of the Newark Charter School, where some students are planning to walk out next Wednesday. “We would be sending mixed signals, contrary to encouraging development of a civic-minded mentality, if we were to shut them down the first time an issue they cared about came up.”
“Most school administrators would want to graduate students who are civically active about issues that have hit home to them,” adds Brendan Kennealey, president of Salesianum School, where a walkout is also anticipated.
Also, Kennealey notes, “if you tell teenagers that they can’t do something, you’ll probably get a lot more of them interested in doing it.”
That’s essentially what has occurred in the Caesar Rodney School District, south of Dover, where Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald issued a statement saying that he “cannot support allowing students to disrupt the educational setting by leaving their classrooms to ‘walk out.’” His stance prompted a flurry of comments, pro and con, on the district’s Facebook page, followed by a district official deleting posted comments that criticized the superintendent.
“How dare they teach us to ‘speak for the silent, stand for the broken,’ only to tell us to shut up and sit down,” Caesar Rodney High School senior David Haynes wrote last week. “For years, students have been silent (or silenced) and now we decide that it is time to make a change. The district should welcome this with open arms.” Haynes plans to walk out on March 14. “I accept the consequences, but hope that the Caesar Rodney School District does the right thing and supports our movement,” he wrote.
Since then, Caesar Rodney students and administrators have met to discuss the issue. Students are hopeful that they will not be disciplined if they walk out of class.
As of Wednesday, walkouts had been planned at 22 high schools, one elementary school and at the University of Delaware’s Memorial Hall, according to a list posted on the delawareonline.com website.
School officials contacted this week said they could not estimate how many of their students might participate in the walkout and most were not certain how the demonstrations would be carried out. Most are expecting students to gather somewhere on the school grounds, either in front of the building or on athletic fields. Teachers will be permitted to walk out with students, they said. At some schools, students who do not walk out will be asked to gather in a central location, like the auditorium or cafeteria, so they will be supervised while the walkout is occurring. All stressed that the planned activities were “student-generated.”
“This is the first time I can remember students banding together like this,” Meece says.
Concord High School, in the Brandywine School District, “has a lot planned,” says English teacher Julia Overly, who is faculty advisor for a group called Students Stand Up that is coordinating activities to protest gun violence.
“The administration is working with the students, and with the State Police, so it occurs in a safe place, so students can express themselves,” she says. “It is a national walkout, and we are vulnerable. Our number one concern is safety, number two is to give students a chance to express themselves.”
Concord junior Emma Macturk, a member of Students Stand Up, is also a representative to the school district’s joint student council, which discussed possible responses to the Parkland shootings about a week after the incident occurred. “We decided, as a district, that we would plan participation in a walkout.”
Macturk acknowledges that Concord students have a diversity of viewpoints on gun violence. They don’t want to see a repeat of Parkland, she says, “but there’s disagreement as to how” to prevent it from happening again.
Student activism at Concord will extend beyond next week’s walkout. The group created a GoFundMe page and raised $5,500 to pay for two buses to take 112 students, parents and teachers to the March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, D.C. The group is also making t-shirts to wear to the march, Overly says, and any profits will be donated to Sandy Hook Promise, an advocacy group founded after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.
In addition, members of the student group will be encouraging classmates to contact legislators, write letters and make phone calls to give ideas for ending gun violence, Macturk says. “Make sure your voice is heard – and follow up on it. It’s not just a one and done.”
In contrast to Concord, students at Brandywine High School had been relatively quiet on the issue until late last week, Principal Keith Rolph said. “I’ve heard many casual conversations, I’ve seen things posted, and students were talking about making a sign but no one had come to me and said we want to do this” until last Friday.
Rolph said he will support the students as they organize their walkout. “We’re helping them learn how to do this,” he says. “We’re able to teach them how to do it appropriately and to make sure their message isn’t muddled by behavior that doesn’t support their cause.”
Bessie Speers, head of Tower Hill School, is taking a similar approach. “I’m fully supportive of a student-generated effort,” she says. “We’re brainstorming a way to individually and collectively honor the memory of those 17 people who lost their lives.”
Empowering students is an important part of the educational process, she says. “Part of the education they’re receiving is to ensure they become competent, engaged and passionate citizens of the world.”
She said she was pleased that, this week, the school’s Young Republicans and Young Democrats were organizing a teach-in on gun violence, “a student-driven community conversation.”
In the Red Clay Consolidated School District, students are organizing walkouts in at least four of the district’s seven traditional, magnet and charter high schools. In a statement, Superintendent Merv Daugherty called the organizers “serious, earnest students” and said the district “will not stand in their way.” The district is neither promoting nor encouraging the walkout, but it will not take disciplinary action against students who participate and will explore ways to ensure the event is safe and orderly.
Meanwhile, school officials say they are noticing an uptick in sensitivity to safety issues among students.
In late February, Overly said, a Concord student reported seeing a posting on Snapchat that stated something like “I’m going to do better than the Florida kid at Concord High School.” The school notified police and, when the post was checked out, it turned out to be a reference to a school in Concord, New Hampshire.
At Brandywine, Rolph said, a teacher reported to him that a male student with a reputation as “a tough kid” asked the teacher to make sure that the door to the classroom was locked. “That tells me it’s hitting here more than I’ve ever seen before,” he said.
In another procedural change, since the assailant in Florida pulled a fire alarm to bring victims into the hallway, Brandywine is now announcing “this is a drill” when the alarm sounds for a fire drill. “No one normally does that,” Rolph says.
While educators interviewed were careful not to question the reasoning of officials who are not letting students participate in the March 14 walkout, they acknowledged the difficulty in walking a fine line. While students have many views on the issue, the two key themes are ending gun violence in schools and making schools safer. Refusing to let students express those views could create the impression that a school is accepting of the status quo with regard to firearms, safety or both, some said.
If schools don’t let students participate, “it can be a lose-lose situation, but it should be a win-win,” Rolph says. “You’re taking on a role in your community, in a democracy. That is an important civic lesson.”
“It’s almost never a good idea to use your authority to force people not to do something they feel strongly about,” says Meece, head of the Newark Charter School. “You don’t lose your First Amendment rights just because you’re in high school.”