Student-Organized Protest for the National School Walkout

Tess Rine, Contributor

On January 14, 2018 Nikolas Jacob Cruz, age 19, attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Flordia with a AR-15 style semi-automatic weapon. In the end,  17 people were dead at the hands of a mentally-ill former student with a gun. Unimpeachable facts.

America is once again left in the wake of a tragedy but something extraordinary happened: activism. This time around, students cried out for gun control rather than thoughts and prayers with the hope that this school shooting will lead to changes in gun legislation.

On February 25, 2018 head of school Helen L. Marlette signed an open letter in the New York Times calling on lawmakers for action to ensure the safety of students. Mrs. Marlette said the open letter was not a political stance but a stance that supported student safety.

On March 14, 2018 students all across America participated in the National School Walkout which started at 10:00 A.M. and lasted 17 minutes. It was March 14, marking the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting, and 17 minutes marking the 17 lives that were ended. Many SEM students choose to support this movement.

Students made signs for the walkout on Tuesday, March 13. Picture by Tess Rine ’18.

Prior to March 14, SEM students activated for the cause.  Seniors Katie Gibbons and Maggie Rose Bontempo took on leadership roles with this protest. With the help of Kanika Durland who is the director of equity and expansion at SEM and Natalie Stothart, assistant head of school, they organized two SEM-specific events before the walkout. Students wrote letters to members of Congress on Monday, March 12 and made posters on Tuesday, March 13.

Politics never come without controversy and even prior to the day of walkout students and administration disagreed as to the degree to which SEM administration should get involved with the protest. This tension was amplified when SEM requested those who wish to participate to have a permission slip signed by a legal guardian.

According to Mrs. Marlette, there are two core reasons why SEM wanted permission slips from parents. One reason was “hope to engage parents and students in a dialog about an issue.” The larger reason for the permission slips was for the safety of students. “I wanted parents to at least know and accept this because with protest can come a safety risk. Did I believe there was a safety risk? No. But I at least had to make sure the parents had that conversation.”

A student theory as to why SEM requested permission slips was to protect SEM administration from the backlash of parents who did not want their child participating. Senior Maya Simmons said, “Parents would be the ones calling the school saying you let me kid do XYZ. That’s what the permission slip is about.”

One SEM senior was unable to participate in the walkout due to her parents’ views. “Coming from the fact that my parents wouldn’t sign the permission slip because they are conservatives it kind of hurt my feelings that SEM got involved as much as they did,” she said.

If a student had chosen to walk out with a permission slip there might have been a consequence but it would certainly pale in comparison to the punishments handed out to those who walked out in other schools.

A student who chose to participate in the walkout without permission refused to comment on the situation due to a difference of opinion of whether the walkout should be written about in The SEM Weekly.

Others appreciated SEM’s involvement in the protest. Student body president Maddy Cherr ’18 said: “I feel like its SEM purposefully taking a stand so it’s nice that the school is standing with us.” Brooke Pohlman’ 18 does not know how she feels about the involvement of faculty. On one hand it is nice to feel support from those who educate you, but on the other hand part of education is knowing when it is time to let go and allow students to take the lead on important issues. “I appreciate it to an extent,” said Brooke.

Regardless of the permission slip controversy, 110 SEM students turned in permission slips to walk out of school. A mixture of fear and hope mixed in the air as students and faculty prepared to walk out of SEM’s big wooden doors across the street and into the snow-covered parkway. A protest is dangerous, which is part of the reason it is powerful. People push fear aside in the name of a cause they feel passionate about. Allana DePaz ’18 said “We are an easy target. Many people are angry at us. Or anyone doing this thing.”

Brooke shared that fear throughout her experience of the walkout: “I walked out holding your (this reporter’s) hand. My heart was beating. I had a scary dream last night about this. It was dead silent. It was really eerie and it was blowing snow around. Sometimes cars would drive by and they would beep at us and you could tell everyone would look around to see where the noise was coming from. We were all a little bit scared in the back of our heads. It was really powerful being surrounded by all those girls.”

The National School Walkout on March 14. Picture by Tess Rine ’18.

The fear was ever present but the desire for change was what truly encapsulated the protesters outside of SEM. SEM students and teachers walked out for a number of different reasons. Mick Tesluk ’20 walked out in the hopes of “better gun control laws and regulation. It’s so unfair what happened to these kids and families.” Casey Ball ’18 said “we aren’t protesting as anti-gun. We are just asking for more control on guns.” Senior Kai Ellis said,”This is also in support of the students who lost their lives. Ignore your guns for a second. You have to be a different type of person to be like guns are more important than students losing their lives.”

There were just as many reasons to not participate in the walkout as there were to participate. Mrs. Marlete who did not participate said, “I felt it was a student walkout. The role of the school was to protect safety. And we had to have school continue for those who choose not to participate.”

Senior Sarah Hamdan gave voice to the students who did not participate and said “I just basically felt that the purpose was lost because it ended up being organized by the staff and faculty of the school and that was not part of the point of the walkout.”

The 17 minutes without many SEM students affected the school day for those who stayed in class.  Sarah said, “I found it really hard to focus because the whole time I was thinking that a part of me wanted to be doing it.” Math teacher Courtney Heaps held class as she always does. “I just kept on teaching. It did take them a little bit longer to return to class than I was told it would take but overall it wasn’t too distracting.”

After the walkout, controversy continued because of a video taken and posted on SEM’s Instagram by SEM director of communications Erin Kelly. Senior Tessa Covello posted in the comments: “I respectfully ask you to remove this video. We’re not comfortable with a protest being used for publicity.” SEM did not take the video down and it’s had over 5300 views and a number of comments, most supportive of the protest and SEM student involvement.

Some students believe SEM wanted to use student activism as a selling point for SEM. The irony of being anti-posting this video is not lost as the protest was organized via Twitter. Of this hot topic, Mrs. Marlette assuredly said this post was not for publicity. “SEM did not take a position. We took the position of helping students organize and learn how to be activists. We support students right to activism.” “It’s making them think about it, and to me that’s education.”