A half dozen Onteora District students were suspended for participating in the April 20 student walkout to protest gun violence, a national event that saw 2600 school districts and approximately 250,000 students participate, according to the National School Walkout website. This followed a March 14 walkout to honor the 17 students who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a tragedy that has organized teens to be proactive for better gun regulation. The organizers of this particular event were High School students from Sandy Hook, Connecticut where another mass shooting occurred killing 20 children in 2012.
April 20, 1999 was the date when teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before turning the guns on themselves at their High School in Columbine, Colorado. This year marks 19 years from when the massacre occurred and since then, the level of school shootings have only increased and gun control remains a fierce topic of debate. For school districts who organized the April 20 walkout, 13 seconds of silence was included for the victims of Columbine.
Onteora did not participate and a letter was sent out noting disciplinary action would be enforced for leaving school grounds. The letter states why it chose not to participate. “In contrast, additional demonstration being planned for April 20, 2018 (the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting), may prove more disruptive. The groups supporting this walkout are encouraging students to leave the building at 10 a.m. and be absent from the school for the remainder of the day.” The National School Walkout website does not encourage students to leave campus. However other school districts posted similar concerns. The website gives three goals — hold elected officials accountable, promote solutions, and engage students in the political system.
Freshman Sophia Roberts along with two of her friends, Eva Donato and Emily Peck, made signs for the event and the three walked out thinking they would find others, but no one was there. They were suspended for one day and spent that time writing letters, doing homework for the day missed, and participating in a group phone chat with Woodstock Times. “We reached out to Congress-members,” Roberts said, “to the Senators, and Congressman John Faso.” They had no idea they would be suspended. However their parents are supportive, and they consider it a lesson in civil disobedience. All three said teachers in their school taught them to fight for what they believe is right and they thought this was the right move to make. “Now with all these shootings,” Roberts said, “…I’m not a very paranoid person but going to school on any given day is like a little nerve racking…”
Donato said, “I really haven’t thought about it that way. People thought that on March 14, but it’s so true what Sophia said, it’s terrifying it’s such a common thing of everyday life.”
Peck agreed. “We wanted to keep everyone aware of what a serious and dangerous an issue this is,”she said.
Superintendent Victoria McLaren would not speak specifically on individual students but spoke on safety overall. “Regardless of how we feel about a particular initiative, we still have to maintain a safe school and we have to maintain our rules,” McLaren said. “And I know people feel incredibly passionate about this particular issue — as do we.”
Disciplinary action is the building Principal’s responsibility. “I would like to stress that I think it’s amazing that students are passionate about their safety and I agree with them that we all need to be able to come to school and the children need to be able to come to school and focus on their education…and I look forward to seeing what the youth of this Country can do to change legislation, impact the people who can make the necessary changes that will allow us to have schools and public spaces where we don’t have to be concerned about this.”
Not a ‘negative confrontation’
School Board Trustee Bennet Ratcliff’s son Beckett was given a two-day in-school suspension, with two other students at Bennett Elementary. Beckett explained in a two page detailed letter that they never left school grounds, but instead protested for 13 minutes (for each Columbine victim), within the school and then stopped. They wanted to adhere to the rule of not leaving school property, but were given the suspension for insubordination. “I believe that ending gun violence is important and should be encouraged, not turned into a negative confrontation,” Beckett wrote.
Speaking not as a Trustee but as a parent, Bennet Ratcliff said, “I think that we need to support these kids in every way possible as they learn about civil disobedience. I’m not against the schools’ repercussions, but I think it’s really disappointing they have not recognized the leadership these children are taking, instead they’re punishing them and focusing on that.” In a detailed letter,
Ratcliff said, “Those kids are not protesting their schools, they’re protesting that we’ve failed as a society to deal with gun violence, to recognize that they’re correct and we need to do something to work with them to solve it.”
A question was posed on various Facebook sites that gathered parents around the Country to explain their children’s day. A school in New York City forbid the protest and students were given unexcused absences; a parent in upstate New York filmed her child who organized a school-allowed rally; a former Onteora student, now a teacher in Virginia said the students participated; and in Chicago students held a rally and most returned to school, though some went to larger marches throughout the city. Roberts said at Columbine the students used the day for Community Service.
Ratcliff said, “These kids are amazing, the way they are moving this system forward, it’s great!”