SOUTHBURY — At 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14, thousands of students all over the country participated in the National School Walkout, an event to honor the lives of the 17 students and staff members killed on February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and to protest against gun violence by pressing lawmakers to pass stricter gun safety laws.
Most of the walkouts took place at high schools and colleges, but at Rochambeau Middle School in Southbury, about 35 students left their classrooms and went to the AP room for a “walk-in,” where they watched a brief You Tube video honoring the 17 killed in Florida, printed their sentiments on a banner and were given the opportunity to speak their minds.
School officials accommodated the walk-in by instituting a revised schedule that day. Students not wishing to participate stayed in their classrooms for quiet study time.
Voices attempted to cover the event but was turned away by police who blocked entrances to the school parking lot, the reason given “for the safety of students.”
Voices reporters were expressly invited to cover a walkout that day at Oxford High School; video coverage appears on Voices’ Facebook page and at voicesnews.com.
Students at Pomperaug High School also participated in the National School Walkout.
An email to PHS parents from Principal Glenn Lungarini included the following statement to the press:
“In an effort to honor our students’ voice, I worked closely with PHS community members to develop a program that would be meaningful. I am greatly appreciative of Representative Arthur J. O’Neill as well as staff members from Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty’s and Senator Richard Blumenthal’s offices, who met with more than 100 of our students to hear their perspectives on issues related to the National School Walkout.
“Additionally, approximately 70 students walked out of the building at 10:00, gathered in a peaceful and respectful manner, and returned to class shortly after 10:17.
“Pomperaug High School administration is reaching out to parents of students who walked out to advise them that their children were out of the building and to allow parents to excuse them from school for that period of time. All of our students were consistently respectful, and I saw no behavior that would require discipline.”
Rochambeau’s event was organized by eighth grader Ashley Carter, 13, who is close to several students who lost friends and classmates in the massacre at Sandy Hook.
As a third grader attending a magnet school in Danbury, Ashley met a number of students from Sandy Hook who were displaced after a gunman entered their elementary school on December 14, 2012, and murdered 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six adults.
“The kids at Sandy Hook had to go to other schools,” she said. “I became best friends with some of them. I could see how they were really impacted by what happened.”
After last month’s incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Ashley listened to the students there who articulated their wish for adults to stop sending “thoughts and prayers” and instead take action to make schools safe for all.
When the Douglas students chose March 14 as a National School Walkout day, Ashley created a petition to have a similar event at RMS and began circulating it among students on February 26.
More than 130 students signed the petition the first day alone. Several teachers congratulated Ashley for having the courage to speak up. But support was not unanimous.
“A lot of people really feel passionate about this topic,” she said. “One student took the petition out of my hand and threw it in a puddle.”
Ashley told Voices that a small group of eighth-grade boys were “screaming about the second amendment” in the lunch room.
“I respect people with different opinions,” she said, “but we’re talking about a school shooting. Students their age are being killed with guns.”
After a March 5 meeting between school administrators and interested students, Ashley told Voices she felt the walkout was supported by the school.
But in an email sent to parents on Saturday, March 10, that referenced a previous correspondence from Superintendent Regina Botsford, RMS Principal Michael Bernardi said that Region 15 does not endorse a walkout but would instead offer “an optional walk-in experience.”
Students attending would “observe 17 minutes of supervised silent reflection or participate in small-circle conversations with their peers.”
Only students with permission slips signed by a parent would be allowed to participate, the email advised.
Students who attempted to leave the building without being properly signed out by a parent would be subject to disciplinary action.
According to Ashley, small group discussions would defeat the purpose of instilling unity to drive action, which was the original purpose of the event. She felt the permission slip was unnecessary and the two-day response time unreasonable.
“I feel they are trying to sweep this under the rug by saying they are supporting participation by students who are interested, but putting up such strong guidelines that it makes actual participation an uphill battle,” she said three days before the scheduled event.
“Now many students who signed up don’t want to attend because they feel let down without unity to the point they say it is ‘meaningless.’”
In the end, the number attending the walk-in was small enough to accommodate all in one circle of chairs. Ashley and a friend each gave a brief speech.
Ashley and a friend, Lucas Cohen, 14, had prepared a video expressly for the walk-in. While Ashley wasn’t permitted to present the video at that time, she shared it with interested students and staff in the school media center during recess time.
Ashley was approached that day by a teacher she didn’t know who commended her actions, saying that she and her son had been gun safety advocates ever since he survived the July 20, 2012, mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Other teachers expressed support and shared information about attending the March for Our Lives demonstration this Saturday in Hartford.
Five teachers stood outside the school building from 10 to 10:17 a.m. that day with a sign reading “Now Is the Time.”
Still, Ashley was disappointed that the event did not draw the wide participation indicated by the signatures on the petition, noting her belief that many students stayed away out of fear of being suspended.
Others, she felt, didn’t know about the permission slip requirement as the principal’s memo was emailed only to parents and not to students.
“Students are leading the anti-gun violence movement and it’s sad to see adults, and particularly schools, not 100 percent supportive,” she said.
“I do understand that some kids don’t want this to be a political movement.
“What we’re fighting for is an end to gun violence. We’re just trying to get rid of gun violence in schools.
“Nothing can stop us if we’re all working together.”
In her speech at the walk-in, Ashley recalled the experience of her friends from Sandy Hook and predicted that the young people of today would be the ones to end gun violence.
She urged fellow students to continue to stand up for what they believe in.
“So go out, spread the word,” she said. “Because we are not done, we refuse to give up. This is not the last you will see of this, we will keep fighting until this is right.”