Students Speak Out Against Gun Violence

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Students hold up posters during an assembly at Westbury High School.

The aftershocks of the Parkland, FL, shooting continue to ripple throughout the country, with students from Westbury and Carle Place lending their voice to the national conversation about gun control and school safety last week during the National School Walkout.

While the Feb. 14 tragedy that left 17 students and staff members dead was not the first school shooting in recent memory, it has been marked by a surge of vocal young activists calling for tighter gun control laws and safer schools. Their passion was clear on March 14, when teenagers across the country memorialized those lost during the Parkland shooting and made their desire for gun reform publicly known during the National School Walkout. Organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, the event saw thousands of middle and high school students leave classrooms across the country and stand outside for 17 minutes. While every school handled the event differently, with some embracing walk outs and others encouraging acts of kindness, the message was the same: teens are not only demanding action, but helping effect it.

Westbury Students Organize Assembly

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Westbury High School juniors Jahshua Taylor and Jessica Ellis started TFA—Time For Action.

“Students are getting more involved after the Parkland shooting. Many students were concerned about the topic,” Taylor said. “What can we do to support gun control, while supporting school safety and students in Parkland?”

In their research, the students learned about National Walkout Day. When they brought the idea to the administration, leadership noted safety concerns about students leaving the building, but said they could use the auditorium to pay tribute.

“Students took the initiative and met with leadership at the middle school and high school and requested the time to pay tribute,” said Superintendent Eudes Budhai. “We informed them of the safety precautions we have as a school district when it comes to events like this. Our concern is their safety.”

TFA organized a 17-minute assembly that drew more than 700 students to the auditorium. From 10 to 10:17 a.m., student leaders named the 17 students and staff members who lost their lives, held a moment of silence and addressed issues such as gun control, school safety, all lives matter and immigration help. The 17 minutes ended with a singing of “Let There Be Peace On Earth.”

“The shooting doesn’t only affect those in Parkland, but us, because [issues] like overcrowding can promote lack of school safety,” said Ellis. “We touched on everything in the short time we had to make sure everyone had a voice.”

TFA has also arranged a bus trip to the March For Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC—an anti-gun violence event—and is also organizing voter registration drives and letter writing campaigns at the high school in the coming months.

Westbury Middle School students signed a banner to be sent to Parkland, FL.

Over at the middle school, students wrote notes on index cards to families and individuals in Parkland, with a committee choosing the 17 best notes to be included on a banner. The banner was placed in the cafeteria for the student body to sign, and along with the notes, will be sent to Parkland students. The school day also ended with an assembly paying tribute to those who lost their lives during the Parkland shooting.

“I wanted people in the school to be aware of what’s happening outside of our school so we can not just say things but change how things work,” said eighth-grader Joceline Lazo, who spoke about one of the Parkland victims during the assembly.

Also participating in the assembly was eighth-grader Debora Sorto, who said she wanted to be part of something to help people who were suffering.

“We may be just one out of many districts in the nation, but the school in Parkland knows there’s people all over the country that are supporting them,” said Sorto. “It was an honor and privilege to have a ceremony like that for the people in Parkland and we hope they can recover and, if they’re fighting for change, that they can get the change they want and need.”

Carle Place Hosts ‘Walk Up’

In Carle Place, a letter was sent out from Superintendent Dave Flatley to the school community the Monday before the walkout, informing them of the district’s plans.

“While there are many different points of view as to the appropriate activities for March 14, 2018, one thing we know for certain is that a ‘mass walk-out’ is not a safe activity and it is certain to be disruptive to the education of our students,” stated the letter.

Similar to other districts across the island, Carle Place developed a “Walk Up” plan that would “serve to make a positive statement about honoring the memories of all who have lost their lives in school violence.” Students were encouraged to participate in “ordinary acts of kindness,” such as speaking to classmates they didn’t know, thanking faculty and staff for their contributions to the school, and getting to know the opinion of someone whose views differed from their own.

“I think a simple walkout would have been hard to control and not sure all kids would be doing it for the right reasons,” said parent Jill Kennedy, who said she saw the benefits to both a walkout and walk up. “I think conversation in classes helps a lot and walking out gives them a sense of ‘we own this,’ but discussions can be even more powerful.”

While some parents were supportive of the district’s decision to encourage acts of kindness, others saw it as a wasted teaching opportunity. Diana Castaneda said that while encouraging random acts of kindness was a well-meaning sentiment, she felt that the Walk Up missed the mark.

“The issue at hand is school safety and mass shootings. Compassion and activism are not mutually exclusive and compassion is already a cornerstone of Carle Place culture,” said Castaneda. “The school missed a teachable opportunity on the importance of civic engagement. In conjunction with a structured walkout, a letter-writing campaign, discussion of social movements and healthy debate among older students could have been encouraged. Juniors and seniors are a year or two from being voters. These life lessons are important at this point in their lives.”

Flatley said he received feedback from parents who both agreed and disagreed with the district’s Walk Up plan.

“I think there’s plenty of room to agree or disagree with the plan put together on both sides. But that’s not particular to Wednesday, that’s fairly common for many of the gray-area decisions that the district needs to make,” said Flatley.

Students Face Consequences

Both the Westbury and Carle Place School District told students they would face consequences according to the Code of Conduct if they walked out. No students were reported to have walked out at Westbury High School; in Carle Place, 20 students walked out and one junior was reportedly given out-of-school suspension for posting fliers about the walkout. Flatley said in an effort to protect student confidentially, he couldn’t comment on the consequences students would potentially face.

“The learning experience in social activism and how politics and policies can be changed has been lost,” said a Carle Place parent of two, who asked to remain anonymous. “The takeaway students were left with was one engulfed in intimidation and suppression. The students are being forcibly silenced and crushed into submission by the very adults that are supposed to guide, teach and support them.”

In a letter to New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Governor Andrew Cuomo called on the department to stop schools across the state from disciplining students who had walked out.

“These young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington,” the governor said in his letter. “To punish or discipline them is inconsistent with the freedom of expression that we cherish.”

What do you think of how local districts approached Walkout Day? Let me know at babraham@antonmediagroup.com.

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