After the student-led inside demonstration March 14 at Smyrna High, students talk about the walkouts, making schools safer, and the Fight For Our Lives marches against gun violence this Saturday in Delaware and across the country.
After the shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school one month ago, an idea was suggested and then spread across the country, asking for students to walk out of school March 14 for 17 minutes to remember the 17 students who died and to ask for stricter gun safety laws.
At Smyrna High School, there wasn't an outside "walkout" at 10 a.m., but students who chose to participate in a 17-minute observance were directed to the cafeteria for a student-led program. No media personnel were permitted to attend the observance in the school.
Smyrna Superintendent Patrik Williams said about 600 students left classes at 10 a.m. to attend the event in the cafeteria.
No staff participation
In preparing for a possible walkout, Williams said he met with student leaders at Smyrna High School to discuss the issue and an indoor alternative.
"We have arranged a location inside our school for this purpose," Williams said March 12. "There will be staff, our [school resource officer], and administration, including me, on site to help guide students to and from the location. We are supporting our students in their decision, and our focus is strictly their safety. However, no adult staff will be participating, should students wish to convene."
A student’s hope turns to disappointment
Senior Kalle Minner said she had high expectations for what the demonstration could accomplish.
“When I found out about us being able to walk out without it having any consequences towards it, I was excited and ready to do it,” Minner said. “As the ones who cared, we had everything ready for it when it did happen. We decided to wear orange or maroon as our colors – orange to stand for gun control and maroon for the colors of the school in Florida. When the time rolled around, I was ready to see so much orange and maroon and see what our generation could do and what we had control of since we are so powerful. I wanted to see everyone come together as one.”
The demonstration started on a positive note.
“During the walkout, the sophomore class president had a beautiful speech and read each name of who passed and their age,” said Minner.
Then the tone of the ceremony changed. Minner said two boys walked up to the microphone and started repeating the words, "Free Meek" which refers to a popular rapper who is in jail.
“They continuously told jokes as everyone in the audience who came to protest laughed at them. At this point, I was appalled by the boys and what they were doing as this is hard for me to take in. A strong group of teenagers also stood around the microphone making jokes and cheering the two boys on for what they were saying,” said Minner.
She asked an administrator to tell the boys to stop, but the administrator refused because the event was supposed to be led by the students without involvement of teachers or administrators.
Some students started crying and many left the cafeteria, Minner said.
“I do understand that [the administrators] couldn't do much since this was a student-led event,” said Minner.
However, she wanted them to.
“I believe the staff should've jumped in to stop the kids from saying things as they don't know who it could've affected,” Minner said. “I am so sad to say that I am disappointed with how everything was handled with the staff and how students weren't taking this seriously enough.”
Williams said the ceremony included student speakers who asked their classmates to consider marching on March 24 in Washington, D.C. or Rehoboth.
"Another few students said a short prayer, and a final speaker closed by asking all students in attendance to join hands in silence for the final minute,"Williams said. "At 10:17 students returned without incident to class, as we administrators and several available staff supervised the hallways to make sure everyone was safe."
Smyrna students plan to march
George Class-Peters Jr., president of the senior class at Smyrna High School, didn’t participate in the student-led observance in the cafeteria March 14, but he plans to take part in another demonstration against gun violence.
“I have all the respect in world for the students who participated here at Smyrna High, but I chose to focus my efforts on the march that’s coming up” [March 24 in Rehoboth], he said. “We don’t have an official count for the number of students attending yet, but we’re working on bringing as many as we can. I believe there’s power in numbers and we need to get those numbers together.”
Class-Peters Jr. said he prefers a demonstration after school hours instead of a walkout during the school day. One reason is so classes aren’t disrupted and instructional time isn’t lost. Another reason is if students actually walked out of school, that could be a safety problem when the whole point of the demonstration was about keeping students safe.
He said allowing students to participate in a 17-minute demonstration inside the school in memory of the 17 students killed in Parkland, Florida was better than a walkout and better than prohibiting a demonstration.
“I felt that our administrators did their best with efforts to allow students to protest, which is their Constitutional right, while also upholding their responsibility to keep us safe, so I thought it was the best compromise,” said Class-Peters Jr.
As far as ways to make schools safer, he said the key is the students.
“Obviously our school has intruder alert drills and a variety of safety plans that the administrators and teachers keep us informed about, but I believe the best thing we can do to keep schools safe is being aware of our surroundings and if we notice something that’s not right, speak up and report it,” he said.
A report that resulted in an arrest just happened at Smyrna High March 6, when a 15-year-old student was charged with bringing a CO2-propelled BB handgun to school and threatening to shoot a student. However, the handgun and threat weren’t reported to school administrators until after the school day when an adult called the school. With information from the adult, administrators asked people who had witnessed the incident to come to the school to meet with administrators and Smyrna police. With the information, police received a search warrant to search the suspect’s residence, found the BB handgun, and arrested the student.
Students urged to stay involved
Minner hopes the marches in Rehoboth, Wilmington and Washington will be a better representation of what students can do about this issue. While she won’t be able to attend because she has to work, she plans to follow the demonstrations.
“During my breaks I will be checking all media coverage on the marches and I am excited to see what my fellow peers can do,” she said. “We need to make change in this world. We are the generation to do so. It is important to me and as well as many other students in the school to participate because we as this generation have so much power to change the gun laws. I am tired of waking up everyone and having to say goodbye to my parents because I don't know what is going to happen during school that day, and it is extremely upsetting that I have to say that.”
Minner said she has arranged a meeting with the principal and superintendent to discuss the walkout and how to improve safety in the school.
“Students can easily report any activity that they may see at school to a fellow administrator. Even at that, administration needs to take action towards this and change the way they treat some students and use favoritism,” Minner said. “Also, it shouldn’t be so easy for students to bring a gun in the school. Nobody knows what the students have in their book bags, and as you have seen, nobody knew that kid had a BB gun in his book bag. I would like to see change happen in the Smyrna School District. Instead of taking the issues and pushing it under the rug like they always do, speak to the kids about what’s going on. Instead of spending $1,000 on soap dispensers that say ‘Eagle Up,’ invest in bulletproof windows for each classroom and anything to barricade the students if something like this does happen.”
Class-Peters Jr. said students should talk to elected leaders, like he is with U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester as one of eight members of her Youth Advisory Council in Delaware. He said gun violence and school safety will probably be two of the topics at the council’s next meeting later this month.
“In Delaware we’re fortunate to have leaders at a national level who are willing to listen to students,” said Class-Peters Jr. “Congresswoman Blunt Rochester does an incredible job keeping an open dialogue about anything students have to say. She knows we are the future and we’re future voters.”