Kingston students are continuing their efforts to organize school walkouts in mid-March as part of a national movement to raise awareness about gun violence and to honor those who lost their lives in shootings. But some school officials say that student safety, even in a show of solidarity rooted in student safety, has to be a bigger piece of the puzzle.
Schools superintendent Paul Padalino this week said he planned on meeting with student government representatives and Kingston High School principal Kirk Reinhardt. He hopes to find a “happy medium” that allowed for voices to be heard without the potentially unsafe assembly of the entire student body in a relatively small space.
“Putting 2000 students on the front lawn of Kingston High School is just not a good idea, on a given date at a given time for a given period of time around an issue that could or could not be controversial,” Padalino said. “I think finding a place where the school board and administration can encourage students to have a voice, but to do it in a way that will have the least impact on their safety and the educational environment that we are supposed to keep in our school buildings is ideal.”
The National School Walkout is an initiative organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, a collective of teenage activists from across the country working within the larger Women’s March organization. The national walkout is planned for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. in each time zone across the country, one minute each for everyone who lost their lives in Florida.
While school officials said they won’t punish students for participating, they’re not openly advocating for it, either.
“This is a fine line,” said Padalino. “I think the [school] board really wants to support our students. If our students want to speak out about an issue, if they want to be heard, I really think our board wants them to be heard. That’s what we do. That’s part of the whole educational process, having students become advocates for themselves.”
Safety issues must also be considered, said Padalino. “At the end of the day, my job is to ensure the safety, health, well-being and education of every student at the school district. And in doing that I spend a lot of time, whether it’s about student walkouts or bus rides to school, worrying. My job is to think about what can go wrong.”
Asked by a handful of people during a meeting on Wednesday, February 21, the school board also declined to endorse the walkout. Michael D’Arcy and his daughter Scarlett, a KHS junior, were among those seeking support. Both made emotional pleas to trustees. The school board decided that it was not its place to have a say on the matter.
“The board of education did not endorse or give permission for a walkout,” said longtime trustee James Shaughnessy. “I don’t think that would have been appropriate. A walkout out is usually spontaneous and a sign of frustration and/or defiance. If it were sanctioned by the board of education, it would be an assembly, perhaps one that students had the option of attending.”
Shaughnessy thought student engagement in the conversation about gun violence was important. “I do hope that KHS students join the movement to demand a strong and effective response to gun violence in this country,” he said. “In any event, I want them to have an opportunity to show solidarity with their contemporaries around the country. I hope some of them join the march on March 24 in Washington, D.C.”
The March For Our Lives is a nationwide march scheduled for Saturday, March 24 organized by students in conjunction with Everytown For Gun Safety. Smaller marches will also take place across the country.
A second nationwide student walkout is also in the works for Friday, April 20, the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting by two students at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado.
Students at J. Watson Bailey Middle School already held their own peaceful walkout and moment of silence, leaving school on Tuesday, February 20 to honor the victims of the most recent act of gun violence perpetrated on February 14. School officials at Bailey, including principal Debra Fitzgerald and vice-principal Dan Erceg worked with students to turn the event into a sanctioned school-wide response.
Padalino said he felt the event at Bailey was appropriate, but added he would have preferred it to take place indoors. With more time to make plans before March 14, the superintendent added that he hoped discussions with student leaders yields a safer option than assembling on the front lawn of Kingston High. “It’s not about us wanting to restrict their speech, because we don’t want to do that,” he said. “We want them to be heard, but to do it in a way that’s safe.”
Though school officials may not be able to give as much as students are hoping, Padalino said he appreciated that they’ve become so engaged in the world around them.
“What was the original purpose of having free public education in the United States? The purpose was to make sure that you had an educated citizenry who could vote and who could run the country,” Padalino said. “That’s what we want. It’s unfortunate that multiple tragedies had to happen. I think it’s a positive thing that kids are finding their voice and want to be heard, and want to have a positive influence on what the world that they grow up and live in is going to be like.”
The superintendent added that the debate about gun violence in schools may be different now than in the past because students are so actively involved.
“This is why we’re having the conversation, because it’s kids,” Padalino said. “Up to this point adults have had plenty of opportunity. Students leading this, especially the students from Parkland who are speaking out, I mean, we sit and hear them every night. It’s compelling. The significance of that is that they are realizing they can step up and make a difference and aren’t leaving it to other people.”