Angry and scared, students nationwide are planning walkouts to make a political statement about gun violence in the wake of Florida’s Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Fla.
A new wave of sentiment for stricter regulation of gun sales and background checks has swept the country since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.
The movement has already manifested locally with walkouts at Westlake, Mentor, and Lakewood High Schools, and we’ve heard rumors that Lorain County students are at least exploring their options.
Organizers behind the past two years’ Women’s Marches have called for a national school walkout at 10 a.m. on March 14. Those who take part have been told to hold their ground for 17 minutes in remembrance of victims in Florida.
April 20, the anniversary of a 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School that killed 13 people and injured 21 more, has also been tabbed as a national walkout day by some groups.
We reached out to area educators to find out how they intend to handle student protests. Their opinions varied widely.
Oberlin High School principal William Baylis said his students will not be permitted to hold a walkout and will face detention or suspension if they do so.
As an alternative, he and staff members are encouraging students to write letters to Ohio representatives, to be delivered by Baylis on March 23 while he attends a lobbying conference with the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Washington, D.C.
“There’s been some talk around the school and we’re trying to work with our student body so they can express themselves without it being a disruption to the learning environment,” Baylis said. “We have a code of conduct and if kids leave the building without permission that becomes an issue.”
“The key part is communicating with parents,” he said. “If a student comes with a note from their parent that says they’re excused from school at that time, that’s something we can work with. A parent has the right to excuse their kid from school. Our goal is to keep them safe. Being excused is much different than just walking out with 300 other kids without anyone else knowing what’s happening.”
At Wellington High School, principal Tina Drake has vowed to respect the wishes of students even if they decide to walk out, but also encourages safety and organization.
WHS students have no definite plans yet, but early ideas have included walking out to gather in the gymnasium to discuss gun violence and honor shooting victims.
“I’ve had two kids who’ve asked me about a walkout,” Drake said. “One student, a junior, is more than happy to spearhead it. I’ve told the students who’ve come to me that we can plan something out, some sort of ceremony to honor the victims in Florida. They just need to keep staff in the loop.”
“The March 14 date is just so publicized that the safety aspect concerns me,” she said. “Who knows what could happen if some of these kids leave the building? I wouldn’t stop the kids if they walk out, but it needs to be organized. Westlake’s was very organized and structured and in coordination with the staff.”
Amherst Steele High School students have communicated with principal Michael May through email and wish to hold a walkout but are undecided on whether to do it March 14 or April 20.
Like Drake, May will allow students to organize so long as it’s done in an organized manner. And he said he won’t let it turn into a political rally.
“We’re not out to get anybody,” he said. “It has to be about school safety. We’re not going to let this be about pitting each other or political parties against each other or putting anyone down.”
Whether a walkout will materialize is speculation. May said he has a hunch students will come up with another form of protest and will be extremely careful not to create disruptions.
Patrolman Eric Layfield, who serves as Steele’s school resource officer, said he’s not concerned with enforcing truancy laws in the event of a walkout.
He signaled that his goal will be to keep students safe during whatever form a protest might take.
Firelands High School principal Bob Maver said his students will be permitted to walk out and that it will likely happen April 20.
“I met with my student council president and senior class president the day after this last shooting,” he said. “The kids want to do something April 20, hold some speeches, and come back in the building. The kids have been great in telling us what’s going on. These kids really care about their fellow students and they want to do the same thing. God forbid, no one wants to see something happen in Lorain County like what happened in Florida.”
Rumors of multiple walkout days at Elyria High School have been seen on social media, but no formal plans have been made there by students, according to principal Timothy Brown.
He said students have a constitutional right to hold a walkout and he will respect it.
“My primary concern is safety but it’s my mind to let them have a voice,” Brown said. “I know our superintendent is on board. We’re not suspending kids or handing out punitive consequences, so long as they’re respectful and lawful. They’re not excused from the class work they might miss and they can’t coerce or make fun of someone who chooses not to walk out.”
Administrators also shared views on the idea of arming teachers and other aspects of the national debate on factors that contribute to gun violence.
“I’m definitely not in favor of arming teachers,” said Baylis. “Obviously, our government already isn’t doing a good enough of job in terms of wraparound services that schools require. We’d like to have two full-time guidance counselors but the funding just isn’t there.”
“There’s more to it than just gun control,” Drake said. “There’s a lot of mental health issues that need addressed as well. Having tighter gun control in itself doesn’t mean the problem is going to just go away.”
“We’re not trained law enforcement officers,” said Maver. “I love those guys, but they go through a huge amount of training. Putting a gun in a teacher’s hand without that same training is a really, really bad idea. The kids just want to feel safe, and we all have to put our heads together and come up with plans to make that happen.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter. Jason Hawk contributed to this report.
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