Students join nationwide protest, many focus on kindness
Apr 03, 2018 04:01PM ● Published by City Journals Staff
Students gathered around the Brighton High football stadium to show their support for safer schools. (Salua Masina/Brighton High School)
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By Julie Slama, Justin Adams, Lori Gillespie and Travis Barton
Across the country students made their voices heard on March 14, one month after the school shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school. They honored the 17 victims with tearful moments of silence, they protested gun laws and pledged kindness to their peers. Salt Lake County was no different as schools around the valley participated with walkouts and “walk ups.”
“I’m scared at school and I hear that from my friends as well,” said Academy of Math, Engineering and Science junior Grace Wason. “I don’t think fear should be in a place of learning.”
About 150 students, most wearing black in mourning, lined 1300 East near the Murray school. They held signs showing each victim and chanted, “Books not bullets; no more silence. We are change.”
During the walkout, Grace recited names of each victim, then added: “These are only 17 of the 75-plus students we are mourning today. We do this in solidarity not only with lost victims, but also their mourning friends and families. This has gone too far.”
Grace participated in a routine school lockdown earlier in the week. “It was daunting,” she said. “I was working on the posters and saw them on my desk as I hid in the corner and thought, this is the exact thing those Florida students went through only they had someone with a gun come in their door.”
Students, many who planned to take part in the “March for Our Lives” rally at the Capitol March 24, also signed up to vote as leaders organized voting registration as well as planned to hold a letter-writing campaign to Congress.
Murray Board of Education Vice President Kami Anderson said Murray School District allowed students from Murray High, Hillcrest Junior High and Riverview Junior High the opportunity to walkout.
“As a school district, we wanted to facilitate the conversation between students and parents about what the walkout means and why or why not participate and provide a safe place for them,” she said. “We need to allow students to make the choices for themselves.”
Murray High student body president Kate Spackman said student government ushered the student-organized walkout to the school plaza, which had about 250 students participate.
“Some students stood up and spoke out; we paid our respects to the victims,” Kate said. “I felt the kids who walked out for the right reasons supported the victims and it was awesome. For the kids who walked out to miss school, I hope they realize what this is all about and the importance of it.”
Kate and other student government leaders organized “17 days of kindness of positivity.” Suggestions include to make a new friend, smile at 17 people, post a picture on social media “NeverAgain” in support and write to Gov. Gary Herbert and the legislature.
“We wanted to do something that will make a difference immediately in kids’ lives,” she said.
Brighton student government also will hold a kindness campaign to create a more welcoming environment, said Principal Tom Sherwood after about 500 students participated in the student-led walkout.
“I believe if students want to make a statement about changes to protest future lives, they have a right,” he said. “Students for generations have used civil disobedience in the community or country to stand up for what they believe is not right — and they still do.”
Students, who gathered in the football stand, were silent for 17 minutes as the names of victims were held up and read out loud. Student leaders also urged students to use their voice — “we can’t let kids our age die in vain,” to vote and to write to their representatives.
Afterward, two juniors — Evelyn Compagno and Lilly Olpin — lingered.
“I’m so glad we raised awareness for such a horrible thing,” said Evelyn, adding that she had friends who survived the Las Vegas shooting. “Those kids were murdered for no reason.”
The future of the country is being impacted as well, Lilly said.
“You never know the potential those children had. They could have been someone great, like the next Isaac Newton,” she said.
Community members and Jim and Bonnie Despain came with their signs supporting the students.
Jim Despain, who once hunted rabbits, said that he has wanted better gun control for years. Bonnie is a retired Ridgecrest Elementary schoolteacher and remembers faculty discussing the best course of action after the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings.
“It’s taking the kids across the nation to say enough and get the movement going on this,” she said.
Utah State Rep. Marie Poulson, who taught English in the south end of the valley, agreed and supported students who participated.
“I’m so proud of the courage, how they came out and spoke up,” she said. “It’s taking our young people’s activism to come out to remind us to look at it and make changes. Kids should have the right to feel safe at school.”
Poulson said she recalled how the Columbine shooting terrorized both students and teachers and puzzled them about what they could do to make schools safer. Since then, she said phones and panic buttons have been installed in classrooms.
“And we’re still discussing it now, but I’m hoping these students caught the attention of other officials and have embarrassed them to do more,” Poulson said. “We don’t want schools to become an armed camp, but we want our students to be safe. We’ve called a school safety commission and if they can find a way to make a difference, we’ll call a special session (at the legislature) and I hope they do.”
Students from Highland High School and the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts congregated on the Highland football field where they linked arms and sang the Highland school song. Highland principal Chris Jenson estimated they had 1,200 students walk out.
“The kids that did walk out, it was really nice to see them make a peaceful statement,” Jenson said.
Ermiya Fanaeian organized the student protest—which also included voter registration booths—at Highland having grown tired of the mass shootings that have transpired over the last decade.
“I am sick and tired of American schools being the new American battleground,” she said, adding the protest serves as a “call to action” for Congress and state legislators to limit access to weapons that put student safety at risk.
“It is important that we express our dissent, it is important that we stay pugnacious to the change that we want to expedite.”
Kearns Jr. High focused its energies on what principal Scott Bell hoped would be a “positive direction” rather than getting into the political aspect.
The school’s “walk up” concentrated its attention on supporting school kindness and safety, standing united against school violence and honoring the 17 Parkland shooting victims.
“My hope was there would be a uniting activity for us as a school and I think it exceeded my hopes. It really turned out just awesome,” Bell said.
Before exiting the school, a student-made video was played with students requesting those watching to stand against school violence and pledge to do 17 acts of kindness. On the lawn outside, students and faculty held a moment of silence for two minutes, 14 seconds (the date of the tragedy 2/14).
Once students returned to class they were given a KJH Cares card with 14 suggested acts of kindness and three blank lines for them to come up their own ideas.
“We're giving a challenge to our students over the next month to do 17 acts of kindness for others and to use the #KJHCares to share their acts of kindness on social media,” Bell said.
Bell was impressed with his students saying they struck the right tone of respect and solemnity.
“One thing I didn’t count on was the level of emotion it had for some students,” he said. “We had some of our students and staff be a little emotional about it. There was a real connection with what we were doing.”
At Churchill Jr. High, Principal Josh LeRoy estimated that 80 percent of the student body joined the nationwide walkout.
The administration took a hands-off approach to the demonstration, letting student leaders organize it themselves. They did notify the PTSA so that parents were aware of the walkout, many of whom attended to show solidarity for their children.
The students formed a large circle and had a moment of silence to honor the victims of recent school shootings. Afterward, some of the student organizers spoke through a megaphone about the need for more gun control and more kindness between students, noting that many of those who carry out school shootings were previously victims of bullying.
One of those students, Lydia Timms, said that the opinion and activism of students across the country shouldn’t be discounted just because of their age. “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean that we can’t be patriotic,” she said.
Following the demonstration, the majority of students promptly walked back into the building to return to class.
LeRoy said he was impressed with the behavior of the students throughout the demonstration. “For most of these students, this was their first experience in civic engagement so we wanted to make sure that it went well,” he said.
Eric Holley, one of the parents who attended, said that he thought it was a valuable experience for his daughter. “Something like this works for these kids on their level,” he said.
Midvale and South Jordan
While several Canyons School District schools had student walkouts, Midvale Middle students not only participated March 14, but also on Feb. 23 when 400 students participated in a spontaneous demonstration, said spokesman Jeff Haney, who added as long as students returned to class after the walkout, they were not marked tardy or absent.
Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said that students who walked out were asked to check out, but they were marked truant, according to district policy.
“It doesn’t stay on their record,” she said, adding that they could make it up with an hour of homework time. “Some didn’t check out because they thought it best expressed their civil disobedience. We just want to know where our students are, for their safety.”
At Bingham High, where students also are participating in acts of kindness, Riesgraf said that about 75 students lead a peaceful and respectful walkout by the street.
“We fully support students exercising their free speech and peaceful discussion,” she said.