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Students take charge: Walkouts support school shooting victims, push for school safety

  • Ambera Mutevelic,18, an Easthampton High School student, talks to the media after the 17-minute walkout on March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students walk out of Granby Junior-Senior High School on Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Anabel Evren, 17, a senior at Granby Junior-Senior High School, holds a sign during the walkout. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Students at Granby Junior-Senior High School stand in solidarity during the walkout on Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Olivia Hinkly, 16, a sophomore at Granby Junior-Senior High School, holds a sign during the walkout on Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Anabel Evren, 17, and Jordan Healy, 16, both students at Granby Junior-Senior High School, console one another on Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018, during the walkout in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Dylan Gordon, junior class president of Granby Junior-Senior High School, speaks to students who participated in a walkout on Wednesday morning, March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Amherst Regional High School students including sophomore Zora Dallmann, 15, of Amherst, at center, and some community members march through downtown following a school walkout March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and to advocate for stronger federal gun laws. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Belchertown High School juniors Hailey Bennis, right, and Delaney O’Brien sign a banner that will be sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The two were among about 200 students who took part in a “walk-in” at the school on Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/EMILY CUTTS

  • Belchertown High School students signed a banner that will be sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. About 200 students took part in a walkout on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/EMILY CUTTS

  • Alice Wanamaker, an Easthampton High School student, speaks during the 17-minute walkout on March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A Easthampton High School student holds up a sign with a name of one of the students killed Florida during the 17-minute walkout on March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton High School students look at each others’ signs during their 17-minute walkout on March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton High students turn and face the media during their 17-minute walkout. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton High School students during their 17-minute walkout on March 14, 2018, in honor of the 17 killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Gazette Staff
Thursday, March 15, 2018

Pioneer Valley students marched and mourned Wednesday morning, walking out of their schools and holding still for 17 minutes of silence, one minute for each of the 17 victims who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, one month ago to the day.

It was a day of national protest called for by the youth wing of the Women’s March, the group that organized the demonstration of the same name in Washington last year.

On Wednesday morning, thousands of students poured out of schools around the country, staging walkouts, rallies and vigils — in some cases encouraged by their school administrators, in others, protesting despite threats of disciplinary action.

Locally, students organized a wide range of events, from passive, heartfelt recognition of the lives lost in Florida to active demands for changes to gun control laws and school safety measures.

Easthampton High School

Students at Easthampton High School agreed on a mission statement before Wednesday, which was quite a challenge, given the differing perspectives represented within the school, senior Ambera Mutevelic said.

About 100 of the 571 students held a rally in front of the school, paying respects to the Parkland victims and calling for legislative changes. Among their proposals: closing the “gun show loophole” in background checks, conducting federal research on gun violence and enabling restraining orders to allow police to temporarily seize guns from people deemed dangerous to others or themselves.

Several student organizers took to a stage set up outside the school. One of the organizers, ninth-grader Alice Wanamaker, told the crowd she finds it objectionable that in some states it is easier to buy a gun than it is to buy alcohol.

“The law should make killing children harder than having a drink,” she said, chastising adults and politicians who write off the concerns of young people like herself. “You are trying to take our power and we are done letting you.”

Among the adults who spoke from the stage in support of the students were Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and math teacher Nellie Taylor Donohue, who is also the president of the union representing the school’s employees.

“I’m proud to work in a community where the voices of our young people have been lifted up,” Donohue said.

Afterward, junior Aidan Chappuis and others walked over to speak to members of the press, cordoned off behind police tape from the rally.

“Our first priority currently is universal background checks, to close the gun show and private sales loopholes,” he said. “Those have been found to both have extremely high public support — in the 97 percent range in polls here. And also, equally importantly, they are probably the single most effective measure that you can take to reduce gun violence, and will barely ever infringe on someone who can legally own a gun.”

Mutevelic, a senior, told the media that she was glad that the school and town leadership supported their right to protest, but added that not everyone in the community shared that commitment to the students’ free speech.

“A lot of people were putting us down, a lot of adults didn’t want us to come out and speak,” she said.

Granby Junior Senior High

In Granby, students filed out the front door of Granby Junior Senior High School into a space bounded by traffic cones in the parking lot, arranging themselves into the shape of the number 17.

“Today we are not just students from Granby, but Stoneman Douglas, Columbine, Georgia Tech, Sandy Hook and countless others,” Dylan Gordon, 17 and junior class president, told his fellow students.

Granby Police officers stood ready at doorways and in the parking lot. About 240 students, roughly 70 percent of the student body, participated in the walkout, according to Jordan Healy, a 16-year-old sophomore.

To begin her speech, Healy listed all the students who died in the Parkland shooting, the colleges they had hoped to attend and other facts about their lives.

“Our job in high school, elementary school and college is to be students, not to play police officer,” she said. “Your jobs as teachers is to educate us, not to have to play security guard.”

After the speeches, the students held a minute of silence.

As she helped the students form the “17” at the start of the event, Healy explained her motivation.

“I’m here today because I’m very politically angry,” said Healy, who was wearing an orange shirt to show her support for stricter gun control. “I’m a student and I don’t want to live in fear.”

Principal Stephen Sullivan acknowledged the concerns.

“When they are safe they can focus on learning,” he said. “The students felt that today was not about policy arguments because they felt it was not political. … It was about remembering the victims.”

According to 17-year-old senior Anabel Evren, about 20 members of the student council met several times in the preceding weeks to plan the walkout.

“It’s a remembrance and it’s to advocate for school safety because things like this shouldn’t happen,” Evren said.

“I look at this as a time of unity and not to be tearing people apart by saying we want to take people’s guns away, or any gun control debates,” said senior Conor Otto, 17, after the event.

Some of the students, though, were advocating for policy changes. When asked what kind of legislation could help prevent gun violence, Healy pulled up the Women’s March Instagram page on her cellphone and read aloud a post under the hashtag #Enough.

“An act or resolution declaring gun violence a public health crisis, ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, expand background checks on all gun sales, pass the federal gun violence restraining order law, and pass and act to demilitarize law enforcement,” Healy said.

Asked by a reporter about the arrest of a fellow student last month on charges of threats of violence made against individuals and the student body, students said the issue of gun violence hit home for them.

“This is why we drill, this is why we talk about these things and this is why we prepare,” Sullivan said. “You need to be vigilant, you need to be alert. When you see something, say something.”

Northampton High School

The goals of the walkout at Northampton High School were to educate, advocate and mourn, said Ben Moss-Horowitz, one of the organizers.

Wearing orange armbands to recall the activism of the 1960s, students and some community members gathered outside the school. More than 20 students spoke at the tightly organized event, which featured chants and signs.

“Enough is enough,” went one of the chants. “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!” went another.

“Never again,” read one of the signs. “Protect kids not guns,” read another.

Seventeen students each read a one-sentence description of one of the Parkland victims.

“Listen, and think about what your sentence would be, what your child’s sentence would be if you’re a parent,” Moss-Horowitz told the crowd.

A  moment of silence followed.

Before and after, speakers asked for action, and some criticized the NRA.

Students were encouraged to register to vote. One speaker pointed out that 16-year-olds can pre-register to vote and said that voter registration would be held at the school after the walkout. Students were encouraged to join a march to City Hall on March 24 to protest gun violence. Another speaker advocated for a red flag law that would give police in Massachusetts the power to take guns away from those who present a clear and present danger, with a court order.

Perhaps the most striking bit of activism came from Eva Gerstle, who urged everyone to call their representatives.

“Let’s do it all together right now,” Grestle said. She did, right then and there, leaving a message for Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Others followed her lead, pulling out their phones and calling.

Moss-Horowitz said afterward that students prepped for the walkout by holding open meetings, organized by a coalition of seven different student groups. He said the orange armbands were inspired by the black armbands worn by students in Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Northampton High students, he said, were following in the footsteps of others: grandparents who fought in World War II, parents who protested in favor of the civil rights movement and, more recently, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter activists.

“We are just taking the torch and running as fast as we can in whatever direction we hope is right,” he said.

Even students who weren’t at school in Northampton participated. A group attending the Chemistry Olympiad at the University of Massachusetts Amherst walked out of the competition for 17 minutes while a test was going on, even though proctors told them to remain seated.

“While we were missing our school’s walkout we still wanted to participate and show solidarity with the victims,” student Rachel Levitt wrote in an email to the Gazette.

They  read the names of the victims of Parkland and used a video chat to digitally attend the NHS walkout.

Belchertown High School

At Belchertown High School, students walked out of classrooms and into the school’s auditorium to show solidarity with the Parkland students.

Two student speakers addressed the crowd of approximately 200.

“Like Emma Gonzales, we call b.s. on the idea that we are too young to understand and be involved in this necessary change,”  junior Maggie Knapp told her fellow students, referring to a survivor and student activist from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “So today, we will make our voices heard. We will use our voices with our representatives, we will go to the polls and make a change in the world. Just by being here today, you’ve made a commitment to be a part of the change, but there is more to be done.”

The students began the doing as soon as the talking was done. They signed a banner that will be sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and filled out postcards to send to local and state representatives, and grabbed information on how to become a registered voter.

Event organizers Lily Stowe-Alekman, 17, and Knapp, 17, said they were happy with the turnout — more students had come to the auditorium than had registered in an online forum.

“This is a moment we can’t miss out on,” Stowe-Alekman said. “It’s history for our generation.”

“Older generations love to say we’re the leaders of tomorrow,” Knapp said, adding that they often don’t feel like their voices are recognized.

Working on a postcard, junior Andrew Abely, 17, said he took part in the walk-in to urge lawmakers to take seriously “this atrocity that has been spreading across America.”

“Lives should come before the right to possess firearms,” he said.

Sitting near the back of the auditorium, 16-year-old Arianna Piedra sat with three of her classmates working on postcards. “I think you should fight for what you believe in,” she said.

Amherst Regional High

More than a hundred students from Amherst Regional High School packed into the Spring Street parking lot in downtown Amherst Wednesday morning, demanding better gun laws to keep the school community safe. 

Other walkouts, protests

Students at others schools across western Massachusetts also organized events, including at Hampshire Regional Middle and High School, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School and the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School.

Students at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School did not have class Wednesday, and are planning their own action for Thursday.

Hopkins Academy students had expected to walk out of the school, but instead administrators made a day-of decision to turn that walkout into an assembly in the school’s gym.

“It had to do with the weather,” Superintendent Anne McKenzie said of the decision.

For senior Leah Picard, not being able to leave the school was upsetting, and she said she was worried the students’ message wouldn’t be able to reach the greater community.

She was not alone in her disappointment. Numerous students from the school called the Gazette to share their views.

“The whole purpose was to leave school because it’s not as safe as we want it to be, but we were kept in the school,” Picard, 17, said. “It was important for me because it’s sad that we have grown up in a world that is full of violence and guns, and I think when we try to speak about it, we’re told ‘You don’t understand.’”

She continued that the walkout was a chance for students to have a voice and a platform — like students their age around the country — and they weren’t allowed to participate like the others.

Sophomore Virginia Cannella, 15, said she wasn’t surprised by the administration’s decision to keep students inside. She added that the walkout would have had a lot more impact if they were able to leave the school building.

“I believe that school should be a safe haven and a safe place for every single student. Every student has the right to be safe in their own classroom,” Cannella said.

Echoing the sentiment, sophomore Gabby Palmisano, 16, said, “We’re expected to go there and be educated and do all those things. We should at least expect to be safe when we go there and know our lives aren’t in danger by just trying to get an education.”

Smith Academy Principal Andrew Berrios said his school’s students organized a walkout behind the school building, and that administrators shared with students how the school’s lockdown procedures have evolved over the years.

“I think it’s a really powerful thing for an administrator in a public school system to sit back and see democracy take place,” Berrios said. 

McKenzie said students shared their thoughts and a moment of silence, and then were encouraged to talk to 17 strangers or engage in 17 acts of kindness. McKenzie herself said she was visiting with students who decided not to attend the assembly.

In Springfield, local students and others from Holyoke and Boston joined area activists to protest directly in front of the corporate headquarters of the firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson.

Wednesday’s events were not the only ones planned around the issue of gun violence and school shootings. On March 24, national demonstrations are planned, with some local students attending a march on the nation’s capital.

And on April 20, to mark the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School, there will be demonstrations.

Editor’s Note: Earlier,  briefer versions of this story appeared on March 14, 2018.