Some 400 to 500 students at the Saugerties Jr./Sr. High participated in a nationwide walkout this morning in the senior-high gymnasium as tribute to the 17 students and staff members in Parkland, Florida who lost their lives to gun violence on campus a month ago. Students packed the bleachers and court.
It was by inside accounts a positive experience. “It’s such an amazing feeling of unity,” said Lula Rappoport, a senior at Saugerties High and one of the student organizers of the walkout. “I am honestly so overwhelmed and happily taken aback by the response.”
The walkout was 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 was planned for 17 minutes starting at 10 a.m. in each time zone across the country, one minute each for each life lost in the Florida shooting. Organizers estimated beforehand that as many as 3000 different schools across the country would participate in the collective walkout.
In an open letter posted to the school district’s website earlier in the week, schools superintendent Seth Turner said that the 17-minute walkout would occur indoors on a closed campus, under the supervision by school officials and with uniformed local police officers stationed at both entrances to the school grounds.
While all students who wanted to participate were allowed to, no one was forced to join in. “All interested students in grades seven to twelve may participate in the walkout if they choose, and there will be no disciplinary consequences for those attending,” wrote Turner. “We also recognize that some students may not wish to participate. We respect and support that decision as well, and we expect each person to be allowed to make her/his own decision about participating without pressure or criticism from others.”
In his letter, Turner said that the district supported the students in peaceful protest. “As a district, we encourage our students to develop the skills to become engaged citizens who take an active role in the civic life of our country,” Turner wrote. “Freedom of speech is a cherished American right. We support our students in their exercise of that right.”
Rappoport said the atmosphere was ideal because of the work student leaders and school officials did beforehand. “The administration was extremely accommodating and helpful,” she said.
Students signed petitions in favor of stricter gun legislation and increased mental-health services, listened to speeches by fellow students, and honored victims and survivors with a prayer circle led by eleventh grader Max Martinez, another student organizer.
“Helping plan this walkout I thought maybe 100 people would show, but to see a half a gym full of students made me feel amazing,” said Martinez. “To see how many other students can come together with us for such an important topic is just amazing. There is no reason for young children being shot going to school. We need better school security, we need more mental health help, and we need more gun control. People say guns are not the problem, it’s the people behind them, and that’s why we need gun control.”
Rappoport stressed that the walkout was not just about gun control, but honoring victims, coming together, and whatever each student who chose to participate felt most strongly about. It was also an opportunity for young people to come together and have their voices heard.
“Our walkout gave students a voice and place to feel listened by administration and the press,” said Rappoport.
Martinez agreed, adding that the local walkout was buoyed by the national movement. “These walkouts are nationwide and a step towards making a change,” he said. “We say enough is enough. Our politicians need to take action. We as students should not be scared to walk into school. Parents should not be scared to send their kid to school. People say it will never happen to us. Maybe they’re right, but all the schools thought the same thing before it happened to them. We say, Enough is enough and we will not stop until change is made.”