By Lynne Beauchamp, email@example.com & Seth Kinker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Wednesday students from around the country participated in the nationwide walkouts protesting gun legislation at their respective schools. In some places students walked to the steps of their local legislators’ office, in others, students spelled out various messages that spread across social media.
In Washtenaw County responses varied as well. Many local school districts took a neutral approach to the national events and events planned locally. Students would be allowed to exercise their first right amendment while making sure safety and the educational process for students was not affected.
Some schools protested legislators while others remembered the victims.
More than one hundred students at Dexter High School took part in the National School Walkout.
Carrying signs with their opinions, the seventeen-minute student led walkout exited the high school and gathered outside. Student speakers led the conversation speaking “for the victims who were not given the chance to become great leaders themselves because they were silenced by this gun problem.” The students expressed that not only is the walkout a mission about wanting safer schools, but a mission to demand safety through gun reform laws.
The students discussed how to send letters to local political representatives in which to voice their opinions on gun reform and provided a box to drop off letters. During the seventeen minutes, students were given a moment to express themselves. Many chose to write in chalk on the sidewalk voicing their concerns about school safety, while others stood in silence yet filled with emotion. Toward the end of the seventeen minutes the names of the seventeen people who lost their lives in the Parkland, Florida school shooting were memorialized before students silently returned to class.
“We need control in this country, it’s unacceptable that people can come to school and shoot children” said Dexter High School Senior, Sabina Carty. “We are out here because this has been happening for several years now and no one is doing anything about it.
Dexter Schools Superintendent, Chris Timmis, said that while school administration had to remain neutral regarding the walkout, the students had previously discussed their plans for the day and a safety plan was put in place allowing students to exercise their First Amendment Rights.
Dexter High School Principal, Kit Moran, said the students acted very appropriate during the walkout
“This is my 39th year in education and I think highly of teenagers,” said Moran. “Adults haven’t been able to get this done so maybe teenagers can say ‘we deserve to come to a safe school everyday’…maybe someone will listen to them because they haven’t listened to anyone else.”
In Chelsea, at Beach Middle School, roughly 150-200 students participated in the walk out. They went to the gym where they signed postcards, held posters, and participated in chants.
Mayor Melissa Johnson, invited by student leadership, spoke about student engagement, getting involved, and growing as a leader. A moment of silence for each of the 17 victims was observed at the end of the day as students released 17 balloons.
“I was proud of how well prepared and thoughtful our BMS students were,” said Beach Middle School Principal Nick Angel in a letter sent out after the walk out. “There was no reported “divide” between students who participated and those who did not and school returned to normal in a timely fashion. We have amazing students!”
At Chelsea High School approximately 200 students participated in the student-led walkout after the cabinet of the student council decided to take the steps to make sure there would be a plan for the day of the walkout.
The walkout lasted 20 minutes and the students gathered in the commons and listened to three student speakers. In addition to the speakers, the students paused for 17 seconds of silent reflection for the 17 lives lost. Additionally, contact information was passed out for representatives at local, state, and federal levels and students were urged to share their opinions with those legislators. Afterwards, the students returned to their second hour class to close out the class period.
“I am proud of how our students handled themselves in a thoughtful, organized and peaceful manner this morning, while expressing their concerns,” said Chelsea High School Principal Michael J. Kapolka in a letter released to parents later in the day.
Junior Jack Conlin, who participated in the walkout, MC’d the event in the commons, and was one of three speakers, spoke to The Sun Times about his decision to become involved with the walkout.
“My speech urged my classmates to voice their opinions. When I was trying to figure out what to say, I realized the best way I could contribute to this movement would be empowering those listening to advocate for change,” said Conlin. “I know my peers have different opinions regarding guns in our country, so I made it a point to explain that no matter who or what we blame for mass shootings in America, it is our responsibility to speak out so that the culture of violence doesn’t continue to grow. Our country has let these acts of terror become commonplace, and my goal was to emphasize that the best way to create change is to make one’s voice heard in peaceful, democratic ways.
There are class councils for each year and the cabinet, which oversees all of those classes, made the decision to do something for the national walkout when their advisors brought up the topic to them a few weeks ago.
After putting together a plan of what they wanted to do they opened it up to the rest of the student council, pulling all the details together at the beginning of last week. They had also met with administration to let them know the details of their plans – who was speaking; what their goal was; what the speeches would consist of; etc.
“We started with tweeting out that we were going to have the walkout and we decided that we wanted to have papers there with information to contact our state legislators,” said Jenna Gileczek, a senior at Chelsea High School, one of three speakers on Wednesday, and a cabinet member. “Because those are the people we need to be reaching out to make the changes. Our advisors made it pretty clear teachers aren’t really supposed to be there and teachers have to stay in their classrooms if they have any students there. So, we kind of knew that it was going to be our job to, essentially, run it. We didn’t want it to be like ‘This is a student council event!’ because it’s not. It’s a nationwide event but just to have some sort of control over the event we made it sponsored by student council.”
Three students, Gileczek, Conlin, and junior class president Payton Doan all spoke in the commons at the high school to the other students participating.
For Gileczek it wasn’t about making a political statement, something she said would just cause more tension than there already was.
“I think for me I just wanted it to kind of unite people and reach that common ground that even if we all have different views on this, I think we can all agree something needs to change,” said Gileczek. “We need to stop arguing about it and work together.”
Gileczek, who writes poetry and is currently in the poetry unit in her English class at Chelsea, wrote a slam poem that brought up the seventeen lives lost and how all that had come of it was arguing and talking about who was at fault rather than why it is happening and why nothing is being done about it.
“I guess I like to challenge myself and force myself to speak on what I believe in, I kind of volunteered myself,” said Gilczek. “I expressed my anger about all of the arguing that’s been going on over the issue and the fact there hasn’t really been much action about it, it’s just a lot of back and forth talking instead of actually taking action. I tried to bring people together and acknowledge lives were lost and this shouldn’t, this can’t, happen again.
Doan wanted to avoid politically sensitive talk in her speech as well, she has been passionate about the topic since the shooting at Central Michigan University.
Drew VanDerspool, a member of the cabinet, asked for people willing to speak at the walkout and Doan jumped at the chance.
“I said I would do it right away,” said Doan. “I talked to my parents and they were like ‘Yeah you’ve been passionate about this since the beginning, we think it’d be great for you to voice your opinion.’ The message of my speech was really that this is a time for unity,” said Doan. “But also, I wanted to focus on the fact that the high school and all students at Chelsea didn’t need to fight with one another over what the solution was. I tried to get the point across that this was the time for unity that we all need to come together and kind of agree that this needed to stop no matter what the solution was.”
There had been some argument within the student body and community over whether the walkout was the appropriate way to show support for the cause, for Gileczek and Doan it was more about honoring the 17 lost lives than arguing for gun regulation.
“I think there was just a really big miscommunication and people were frustrated by that and they wanted to represent their own opinions over social media which was the only way they could really voice their opinions,” said Doan.
“There was definitely some pushback within the student body,” added Conlin. “Particularly on social media. There wasn’t a majority decision, however, because we didn’t organize this event just to appeal to Chelsea High School students. The goal for us was to join the nationwide movement, and we didn’t want to prioritize attendance over the true purpose of the demonstration. Obviously, we wanted people there, but we didn’t hold the protest so that our entire student body would show up, we held it in solidarity with students across the country calling for change.”
In Manchester around 17-180 students gathered in the auditorium with posters of the names of the 17 victims lost one month ago at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They also signed a large poster which they are going to send to the school.
“The two student leaders I talked to quite a bit really wanted to focus on the idea of school safety rather than getting into a whole political debate that goes along with it,” said Eric McCalla, Principal at Manchester High School. “I preached to this group particularly, the big key here is our ‘Ok to Say’ program and if you hear something, say something so it can be investigated, so that was really our message.”
The walk out was organized by the Alliance group, one of the student leadership programs at the high school.
The walkouts, which began at 10am, were a student led movement pleading for school safety and took on many different forms.