New Paltz students demand action to prevent gun violence

(Photos by Lauren Thomas)

More than 200 New Paltz High School students participated in a tightly-controlled protest against easy access to guns on Wednesday, March 14, joining peers at thousands of schools across the country where some form of protest was expected to occur. New Paltz Middle School students also participated in the walkout. While school board members supported this effort — against advice issued through the state school board association — it occurred within a protective ring of police officers and administrators who prevented most members of the press from witnessing what occurred.

Organizer Caleb Sheedy thought the action went well. Students began filing outside to gather under the the flagpole ahead of the 10 a.m. start time, and he estimated that more than 200 chose to participate. That was lower than he had hoped, but brisk weather combined with a field trip that pulled away “a huge chunk of the junior class” took their toll. However, he turned that into a positive, saying, “I’m kind of grateful for the cold, because it deterred kids who would have used this as an excuse to skip class. The ones out here really wanted to be part of it.”

Sheedy provided a copy of his remarks, which could not be easily discerned from the side of the road despite amplification. In it, he lambasted the National Rifle Association for that organization’s part in keeping assault weapons such as the AR-15 — used in the February 14 attack in Parkland, Florida and other school shootings — legal for sale to members of the public. “Why are civilians legally allowed to own weapons of war, designed by the military, with the sole purpose of killing large amounts of people?” he asked. He contrasted the lack of gun control in the United States with the restrictions placed on semiautomatic weapons imposed in Australia after a mass shooting there in 1996; no similar incident has occurred there since.

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“This is a wake-up call,” Sheedy said, but “all our government can offer right now is thoughts and prayers, while our elected officials sit back and take money from the NRA.” He named President Donald Trump and representative John Faso in particular as being complicit, as both have accepted money from the NRA. Faso, Sheedy noted, is A-rated through that organization.

Framing it as a money issue, Sheedy rhetorically asked NRA leaders, “How much are we worth to you?” Dividing the $30 million donated to the Trump campaign by the 247 students killed in such shootings since the 1999 Columbine attack, he arrived at an answer: “it comes out to be about $121,457 [for] each student. What country do we live in where an organization puts money before innocent lives? A country where guns are so ingrained in our society that we can barely pass legislation to keep people safe.”

This is not an issue of politics, Sheedy said, but of survival. He implored his classmates who are old enough to register to vote, and then do so. “Educate yourself on who is running in your district, and go out and vote! . . . This is our future, and our voice matters the most.”

While he was pleased to receive administrative support in helping students express some of their first-amendment rights — freedom of speech and assembly — Sheedy was surprised that members of the press were prevented from entering the campus, thus curtailing another, freedom of the press. “I didn’t think they would be this strict about it,” he said.

The police cordon was in fact a frequent occurrence at events throughout the nation, and in some areas administrators only allowed actions that took place inside or in interior courtyards, citing safety concerns. In New Paltz, district officials sent a press release advising “parents and students” that the campus would be closed from 9:45 to 10:45 a.m.; an Ulster Publishing reporter was turned away by a police officer at 9:43 a.m., but a photographer who arrived earlier was allowed to remain after her presence was initially challenged. At least two other media representatives were also left literally standing in the cold, only able to peer at the action through telephoto lenses.

Detective Joe Judge advised that only individuals on a list provided to the police department would be allowed access, which was confirmed by sergeant Pat Koch. However, assistant superintendent for business Richard Linden insisted no such list existed. District clerk Dusti Callo maintained that she had no way to contact superintendent Maria Rice, despite Rice having a cell phone paid for from district funds. When she was located, reportedly in the high school, Rice did authorize allowing access for this reporter provided no attempt was made to enter the building; that order was transmitted in time to arrive at the front doors just after 10:17 a.m., when the protest was complete and most of the students had already filed back inside.

Information on the New York State School Boards Association web site made it clear that, while free speech is protected and district officials should not impose extraordinary sanctions on students who engage in these actions, “it would be ill advised for a school district to provide . . . support, based upon the well-established principle that school districts have no express authority to engage in political activities. This would be particularly the case where, as here, the school district is not in a position to control the agenda based upon it being directed by outside parties. Accordingly, school district sponsorship of such activities would not appear to be a viable option.”

“Outside parties” is a reference to the fact that these protests were to some extent centrally coordinated through the site actionnetwork.org, where the Women’s March on Washington events have also been managed. Spokesperson David Albert declined to respond in writing, and instead asked for a phone number which he did not use by press time.

According to information available at womensmarch.com/enough, 3,136 events were planned; organizers are presently attempting to determine how many people were actually involved.

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