School Walkouts Honor Victims, Call for Change

Florida shooting prompts protests across country
Some 300 East Hampton High School students were among thousands across the country taking part in a student walkout yesterday to pressure lawmakers for increased gun-control measures. At right, with the sign, was Gianna Gregorio. Durell Godfrey

Aaron. Alaina. Alex. Alyssa. Cara. Carmen. Chris. Gina. Helena. Jaime. Joaquin. Luke. Martin. Meadow. Nicholas. Peter. Scott.

A chilling roll call of the 17 names that spurred students at hundreds of schools across Long Island, over 3,000 nationally, and even a few internationally, to walk out of classrooms for 17 minutes yesterday. It was part memorial, part protest, recalling the 14 students and three staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killed by an assault weapon-carrying teenager, exactly one month ago yesterday. 

The National Student Walkout, organized by the Women’s March Youth Empower entity, marked the day when a young generation shaped by gun violence made itself heard.

In Bridgehampton, over 150 students, staffers, and parents from the school as well as from the Hayground School, congregated at 10 a.m. on the front tennis court for a memorial service. It lasted approximately 40 minutes as school administrators spoke to the crowd. Robert Hauser, the school’s superintendent, reminded everyone that “we care about you, we care about your safety, but we also care about your emotional well-being” and urged people to speak up if they ever witness something that does not feel right. 

Tom House, an English teacher at the school, also spoke and relayed his connection to the Parkland area, where several of his relatives attend nearby schools. Mr. House’s family in Florida donated hundreds of wristbands with the words “Douglas Strong” to the Bridgehampton School, which were distributed among the children.

Bridgehampton students then took turns walking onto the makeshift stage and reading a brief eulogy for each of the 17 people killed. They were chilling stories of brave, selfless teachers and everyday kids — some with acceptances to universities across the country, others who simply loved chicken nuggets and dogs, another who was an avid dancer, a trombone player, and one 15-year-old boy who had a lifetime goal to join the United States Military Academy at West Point. He died holding the door open for his classmates to escape and was posthumously accepted to West Point “for his heroic actions,” an academy official told CNN.

The school also announced that it will plant a memorial pear tree on its front lawn. The tree is one of many propagated from a lone surviving tree found amid the World Trade Center rubble after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which came to be known as the “Survivor Tree.” The John Bowne High School in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens formed a partnership with Bartlett Tree Experts to create hundreds of trees from the original, which they donate to neighborhoods that have either survived a tragedy or wish to memorialize one. 

In Springs, a two-hour delayed start yesterday, following Tuesday’s northeaster, meant that fifth through eighth graders who planned to attend the walkout had to congregate in the gym instead of the inner courtyard, where they had hoped to plant daffodils as part of the ceremony. The students had opted for a more private affair and requested that only pupils and teachers be present, a setting intended to allow for more introspection. 

According to Debra Winter, the school’s superintendent, 360 students, mostly dressed in white, participated in yesterday’s walkout. It lasted about 20 minutes, she said, during which time students spoke, read poetry, and reflected. The school had sanctioned the event and administrators worked with student leaders who had expressed their desire to participate to make the demonstration a positive learning experience for students.

“You could hear a pin drop in the gym,” Ms. Winter said of the atmosphere during the walkout.

Each school in the area grappled with its own approach and logistical issues in trying to accommodate students on a historical day of teenage activism. 

In East Hampton, Adam Fine, the high school principal, sent an email to parents stating, “The school is in NO position to take sides in the current political discourse; however, we do understand that students have voices and at times these voices need to be heard.” As a result, the principal said, he created a bell schedule that allowed students to leave the building to join the walkout, without any interruption to their instructional time. 

Mr. Fine also cautioned students that if they did not return to the high school at the appropriate time they would be subject to administrative discipline. 

Dozens of community members, including East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, lined Long Lane opposite the high school campus to show their support as some 300 students congregated in front of the school, formed a circle, and remembered the Parkland victims. Some held up signs demanding stricter gun laws. Police officers were on hand at the school district’s request. Passing motorists honked in support. 

In an email to parents, the East Hampton Middle School principal, Charles Soriano, offered them the option of signing out their children should they wish to take part in the walkout, but the school did not allow students to leave on their own. “Middle schoolers are at various stages of emotional and social development across our three grades,” Dr. Soriano wrote. “Many children are simply unprepared to think through — in a healthy, thoughtful way — the possibility versus the probability of something violent actually happening to them at school. Emotionality can very easily take over, and that can be anxiety producing and, in some cases, scarring for kids.” 

At the Ross School, where several buildings on Goodfriend Drive in East Hampton house middle and high schoolers, approximately 120 students walked out of their respective buildings at 10 a.m. and stood in silence for 17 minutes. 

Annabel Loke, a co-president of the Ross student body, who helped organize the event, wrote in an email to The Star, “We wanted to have this walk-out as an opportunity for everyone to reflect and show their support for the nation’s anti-gun thoughts. We made this walk-out optional because we know everyone has different beliefs. Those who took part in the walk-out were the students and staff who wanted to show their support for the other students that are rallying nationwide.”

The national walkout yesterday unfolded amid a reinvigorated debate over gun control and school safety, sparked by student survivors of the Parkland shooting. Since the shooting, the teenagers have advocated vocally and relentlessly for new gun restrictions and called out lawmakers for their inaction. They have repeated the mantra “never again,” a promise to make the killings in their high school the last.

Even though gun violence on the East End is not an everyday occurrence, as it is in many neighborhoods around the country, parents and educators in the area are nonetheless angry and scared and are pushing for increased safety in schools. Officials have responded, with some, such as the Montauk School, hiring a private security firm and Ms. Winter in Springs lobbying for government to cover the cost of increased security in schools and better mental health support.

Yesterday’s walkout was just the first in a series of planned youth-led demonstrations of activism around gun violence. The March for Our Lives rally scheduled for March 24, will take students to Washington, D.C., and other cities to protest. Next month, students also plan to walk out of classrooms on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the deadly Columbine shooting in Colorado.

Somber words for a nation of young people who find themselves at this symbolic juncture can be found in an excerpt from a poem titled “Life Is Like a Roller Coaster,” written by 15-year-old Alex Schachter a few days before he was killed in the Parkland school: “It may be too much for you at times / The twists, / The turns, / The upside downs, / But you get back up / And keep chugging along / Eventually it all comes to a stop / You won’t know when / Or how / But you will know that it will be time to get off / And start anew. / Life is like a roller coaster.”

Bridgehampton and Hayground School students joined together for a school-sanctioned walkout at Bridgehampton’s campus yesterday. Judy D’Mello