A talk with Caleb Sheedy, organizer of New Paltz student walkout protesting gun violence

New Paltz High School student Caleb Sheedy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The shooting attack at a Parkland, Florida high school has again raised the ire of many Americans about how easy it is to obtain guns in this country, but this time there’s a new group speaking out: students themselves will be walking out of their classrooms on March 14 at 10 a.m. In New Paltz High School, the protest has been organized by senior Caleb Sheedy.

“I was afraid nobody else would do it,” Sheedy said when he sat down for an interview last week. “Kids are afraid to speak up against authority.”

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While trustees on the board of education offered their support when asked, authority is a very real factor when children choose to get up and leave a school building en masse. The first administrator Sheedy broached the subject with was “hesitant,” he recalled, and was quick to remind him that actions have consequences. Members of the New York State School Boards Association were explicitly advised not to condone any such protests.

Sheedy, however, has found his voice. He’s been a class officer several times for his grade, and when Maya Gold took her life in 2015, he organized a procession and candlelight vigil to honor her memory. Sheedy is also cast in the role of Leading Player in this year’s high school musical, Pippin. In short, he’s willing to be in the spotlight and decided he was also willing to be in the cross-hairs.

Despite that willingness, Sheedy is quite pleased that there won’t be “consequences” resulting from staging this protest. He admitted that ahead of his speaking at the February 21 School Board meeting, he was “nervous that they would shoot me down,” and then “super surprised” that the opposite occurred.

He only mentioned it in passing, but Sheedy also has a connection to the Florida shooting which may be part of his motivation: his cousin was close friends with victim Alyssa Alhadeff, and he himself once danced with the 14-year-old basketball player. That tie likely only amplifies the generalized anxiety motivating students nationwide to speak out.

When they do so at the high school here, students will walk out the front doors and gather in the parking lot. Sheedy has been promised a microphone and a soapbox from which he and others will address their classmates about gun rights and control. The national walkout plan calls for a 17-minute protest — representative of the number of people fatally shot in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — but Sheedy isn’t convinced that’s long enough.

“I want to take the day,” he admitted, and stay outside with signs expressing a desire for gun-free schools. There will be a clear opportunity for students to rejoin those classmates who opted not to participate and resume the school day, but Sheedy wants to make sure everyone can be part of the protest. By remaining outside, he hopes to entice teachers to join him during their prep periods, and allow students who attend vocational classes at BOCES in the morning to also hear his message. There’s also a protest tentatively planned on the SUNY campus at 4 p.m.; Sheedy intends to be there.

There are some 800-900 students in New Paltz High School, and Sheedy anticipates that at least half of them will join him out front the morning of March 14. Those in the senior class in particular, he said, are “very politically active” and likely to want to be part of this protest.

Stepping up to organize this event has given the senior a level of notoriety around the school: students he barely knows now approach him in the halls seeking information, and he’s even been cited as an example during participation in government classes. Gun rights is contentious even within the student body, but he doesn’t report any negative experiences. “It’s a huge conversation, which is good,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a counter-protest,” he said, “but [gun rights advocates among the students] have the right.”

Any such counter-protest would likely involve students with conservative political views; they are a minority in New Paltz, but they do exist. While a conservative mindset may be a rarity among students, Sheedy finds that it’s the norm when it comes to administering the district. The many complex rules and laws governing schools result in what he sees as administrators who are unwilling to even question those rules.

Sheedy is grateful to have guidance from local activist Glenn Geher in the lead-up to the walkout, giving him a better sense of what works in activism. A mentor in activism is just what Sheedy needs; with the walkout planned for a full month after the shooting, he needs to keep his classmates excited and interested in the meantime. “I wish it had been sooner,” but he recognized that coordinating coast to coast sends a powerful message. He’s relying heavily on social media to amplify his voice and keep the walkout fresh in the minds of his classmates. He’s active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

For the moment, it seems that students are encouraging each other to join in walking out, but as far as Sheedy can tell, the tone is remaining respectful. However, “it’s hard to control what kids think,” and it’s possible some of those disagreements could get heated.

Sheedy’s own views on guns have evolved since he first became aware of the debate vis-à-vis the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. “I’ve never loved guns, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a right,” although “every right has restrictions. This one needs reform.”

There are 5 comments

  1. Can you make it any less meaningful

    So, it sounds like it is not really a walkout with consequenses. More like another organized school activity with “microphones and soapboxes” prepared for the speakers. Kind of takes all the thrill out of it.

  2. Don't talk about bulling

    I wonder if he or other students will also coordinate an assembly about standing up for those who are bullied or request stricter consequences from school administration for bulling? Considering many school shooting perpetrators were bullied before committing their crimes. Bulling is a pervasive problem, that when left unintervene, has brought many people to do things against themselves and others they can never take back.
    As far as conservatives being the minority, that is true for New Paltz the town. The school district is comprised of neighboring towns that are more conservative. You would not likely hear from those students because any views not considered “liberal” are not welcome. Frankly, it is not ‘safe’ (using their vernacular) to be anything but liberal in New Paltz.

  3. Soda pop

    Well done, Caleb.
    Organize the students to register to vote in the November election. Only 16% of people aged 18-29 voted in the last midterm. If students in the 19th district came out en masse, you would be the change you desire.

  4. Ray M

    The biggest problem gun law protesters have is the same with other protests. A few diehards but when it becomes drawn out and actual hard work, it never fails MOST QUIT.

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