'It's time to wake up Congress': Students take part in National School Walkout
Some stood in silence, some walked out of class. Others wrote letters, gave speeches and displayed signs.
Students across Southwestern Pennsylvania joined young people across the country Wednesday for ENOUGH National School Walkout , a demonstration to honor the victims of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Wednesday marks one month since the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting that killed 17 people.
Though demonstrations differed from school to school, many focused on supporting initiatives related to reducing gun violence, improving school safety and expanding access to mental health resources in schools.
Tribune-Review reporters visited schools in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to speak with student organizers and school leaders about why they wanted join this nationwide event.
With chants of "no more silence, end gun violence" and "never again," more than 70 students at Baldwin High School marched to the softball field. Forming a circle, they shared stories of why their voices need to be heard.
"We're now realizing that we have a voice and we can use it to make change because politicians aren't doing enough," said senior Taylor Donahue, 17.
The walkout was student-led.
"We're just really upset with what is happening and passionate about how guns don't belong in schools," Donahue said, noting that students have a right to speak up.
While the walkout was in support of students at Parkland, and opposing gun violence, it also had other missions: to show solidarity among Baldwin students and to give them a new platform to express their thoughts, said senior and co-organizer Zoe Vongtau, 17.
Walkout participants could be punished, Superintendent Randal Lutz said.
"Our district has the authority to regulate activity of this type," Lutz said in a letter to families. "Over the next few weeks, there will be activities planned and organized for students and staff to express their support of the victims and survivors of the Parkland shooting. These activities have been designed to be in alignment with district policy, will not cause any disruption to the normal schedule and will be voluntary in nature."
Vongtau said she hopes the walkout brings about "a general revised focus on student concerns and ways to address them" at Baldwin, as well gun safety talks nationwide.
Thank you to the students and supporters who either came out or encouraged our student led initiative, the #BHSWalkOut . The conversation isn't over and we as students and citizens will carry it. Thank you and #NEVERAGAIN ✊ ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/YBKd8JDulS— BHS Student Walk Out (@BHSmarch4lives) March 14, 2018
Senior Jessica Schwartz challenged her classmates at Fox Chapel Area High School to be bound with love and unity in the face of a tragedy.
"In honor of the people lost, make a difference in someone's life," she said.
Schwartz joined more than 150 students and teachers at the school's football stadium for 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland school shooting.
Students read aloud the names of those killed and then laid down one-by-one on the snowy field.
Student organizer Cory Sauers helped lead the walkout to promote safer schools and believes that students can lead the change that society needs.
"We cannot wait for another school shooting," student Diana Crookston said. She urged people to write letters to Congress seeking stricter gun control.
"We know the power of our activism."
Hannah Gordon braced the bitter cold to participate because she is "sick of thoughts and prayers."
"I believe that high schools are not war zones," Gordon said. "I believe that teachers should teach and children matter more than guns do."
Roughly 250 Gateway High School students gathered in the football stadium to chant and cheer in frigid temperatures for safer schools and tighter gun laws.
Some held signs that read: "It's time to wake up Congress," "How much $$ is my life worth to the NRA?" and "Am I Next?"
At one point, sophomore Luke Robinson riled up the crowd by saying, "We are the change of the next generation," as he called on lawmakers to enact tougher gun laws.
Bella Giunta, a 16-year-old junior, led the charge with five peers. She said the point of the walkout was to protest the lack of gun control measures coming from Congress.
"We're hopeful that this is something that can spark a conversation within our community at school," she said.
Ally Shrank, 17, held up a poster made of six pieces of paper stapled together. On them were names of cities where school shootings have occurred since the 1999 shooting at Columbine (Colo.) High School left 12 students and a teacher dead. The final piece of paper read: "Enough is enough. Time for a change."
The walkout lasted about 20 minutes. During the final minute, students fell silent as Giunta read the names of 17 people killed last month in Parkland.
The walkout at Greensburg Salem High School took on the character of an unofficial school event as an estimated 400 to 500 students left class and gathered in the gymnasium.
Co-organizer Jordan Mitchell, 18, of New Alexandria, said she was pleased and surprised at the turnout.
"We thought there was going to be a good amount of people, but we didn't think this many would be here," she said with a big smile.
Following a moment of silence, students were given the opportunity to sign postcards addressed to legislators, petitions and a large banner that will be sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Mitchell, a senior, ended the event by reading the names and ages of the 17 victims killed in the Feb. 14 attack in South Florida.
"I appreciate every one of you for not just being here today but for being part of the solution," Principal David Zilli told the students. "This is the first step in making a real change."
Zilli said the school steered the event away from contentious issues such as gun control and kept the emphasis on school safety in general. Being "part of the solution" includes things like being "kind and respectful to your fellow students," he said.
"Hopefully, this is a day that will change school safety in this country," Zilli said.
Participating students missed about 20 minutes of their 85-minute second-block classes.
Following the event, Mitchell and co-organizer Dante Howard, 17, of Greensburg, launched 17 orange balloons from the high school courtyard.
On a postcard addressed to Congressional candidates Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone, one student crossed out the provided text about "school safety legislation" and wrote in the words "gun control please" – to which another student added the word "no."
The 450 Hempfield Area High School students who participated at the National School Walkout at the high school were reminded that everyone needs to be kind and respectful of one another and to unite as one, not just as a school, but as a nation.
"The students need to speak up and unify over what they believe in. It's not going to start anywhere else. It's going to start with the students," said Megan Jones, a 17-year-old senior who was wearing a tee-shirt adorned with the phrase, "We Are the Future."
"Speak up for those who don't speak up for themselves and stop the isolation and stop the violence," Jones said.
A bell was struck 17 times as students read the names of the 17 students and faculty who were killed in the tragic Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Two songs, John Lennon's "Imagine" and "We Are the World," were played during the 25-minute event. Students also signed a large poster, "Enough is Enough #Never Again.
One of the participants, Tiernan Klaum, a 17-year-old junior, said it is disturbing to hear students talk about being angry at school, because a person never knows if that individual would resort to violence at school.
"It's happening so often. I often wonder when are we going to be next. You never know," Klaum said.
Striking a dissenting note was senior A.J. Lazar criticized his fellow students he saw at the walkout, claiming they were interested more in missing class for what he contended was a "pointless and stupid" demonstration.
"School is a place where your are supposed to learn. ... All I see today is people who want to skip out (class) in an opportunity to feel important."
Lazar held a sign with large block letters that seemed to support the walkout, but in smaller print criticized the students by stating they were "wasting your breath" in smaller letters.
Jones rebutted Lazar's comments, saying it was O.K. if some students came to the event because they wanted to leave the classroom.
"I think they left with a message that kindness is better," and students need to unite, Jones said.
The organized walkout was monitored by school officials and security. Hempfield Area High School Principal Kathleen Charlton said in a statement that the district respects "the rights of our students to advocate for causes that are important to them and support their efforts to do so in an authorized and orderly manner while at school."
About 450 students met in Hempfield Area High School's field house Wednesday to hear a message of unity from students against violence. Several students spoke as a bell chimed in memory of the 17 students and adults were killed at school shooting in Florida on Feb. 14— Joe Napsha (@jnapsha) March 14, 2018
Students at Highlands High School joined together in the school's common area to hear 17 chimes for the 17 lives lost in Florida last month. The school's choir also sang Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up."
Students joined hands as they stood in silence.
About a dozen students chose to stand outside in peaceful protest rather than inside.
Jaidon Hughes, 17, said she and her friends decided to go outside because all of the school shootings have happened inside and they wanted to raise awareness of safety.
"It's just a sad event, and I feel that we should raise awareness for gun safety and the kids that died," she said.
Principal Shawn Bennis said he was happy with how the event went and the respect students showed for the cause.
"I was very proud of the staff and the students," he said.
Student gathering in the hall for a moment of silence. pic.twitter.com/ySL4WH0P6O— Emily Balser (@emilybalser) March 14, 2018
Instead of walking out of class, students at Kiski High School decided that beginning a conversation — now, not later — was the right way to protest school violence.
About 200 students attended a voluntary assembly and panel discussion about school violence and safety.
They demanded answers from district administrators and staff about what actions are being taken to defend students' lives in an age when school shootings are becoming commonplace.
"I was born after Columbine. School shootings have always been a part of my life. School shootings are just a reality," senior Kylie Zaffina, 18, said. "It's frustrating. We need to make sure our voices are heard."
"I think it's more or less that we are scared. I think fear is the mother of all necessity, and we need answers," senior Maggie Mullooly said.
Principal Chad Roland said that students decided to hold the conversation themselves.
"We met with the senior committee and the students felt that a walkout wouldn't actually deliver a message," he said. "They wanted something more powerful and to focus our energy on having a real conversation."
Students asked administrators whether the school would consider metal detectors or arming teachers. They wanted to know if changes to the school's fire response — which puts students outside and potentially in harm's way — were forthcoming.
Administrators promised that the conversation would not end with one meeting, while acknowledging that the students often know more about what is going on with their peers and in the building than do the adults around them.
"If you think one of your peers needs help, say something," Roland said.
Hundreds of bright orange post cards will be delivered to state lawmakers this week following a campaign held Wednesday at Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School.
Instead of walking out of class, middle and high school students had the option to write letters to local lawmakers expressing their views on school safety. The school provided addressed postcards and taught students how to contact their representatives. "This is not about Democratic or Republican," eighth-grader Serenity Byers said. "This is about stopping violence so that no more lives get taken."
Senior Nick Secosky, who helped organize a 17-minute walk to raise awareness about school safety at Mt. Pleasant in February, also said that this is not a political debate.
"This isn't gun control," Secosky said. "This is preventing things from going on in schools."
Secosky wrote to state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, to ask for more funding for school security and training officers to work in schools.
Senior Ian Fornal also wrote to Ward, emphasizing the need to protect "the sanctity of education" and to ensure that schools are safe spaces where students can learn.
"I think at the very least, we'll be heard," Fornal said.
At Norwin High School, about 200 students participated in the walkout, highlighted by a student reading the name of each victim of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in each of the 17 minutes and offering a brief description of the person.
Charlie Blenko, a junior and one of the student organizers, said he believed the program was "very unifying experience."
"Hopefully, our union with other school districts (involved in the walkout) around the country will foster a change to prevent tragedies like this from happening again," Blenko said.
Hundreds of Penn Hills High School students marched in solidarity with others schools nationwide."We feel safe in this school and feel like we're in a safe environment," senior class president Jordyn Ford said. "We want other schools to feel that was as well."Students led the march, held a moment of silence and sold bracelets and T-shirts to raise money for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School."I think all the schools coming together creates a stronger impact for the school in Florida, to let them know other schools support them," said Kahlil Darden, president of the black student union. "Not that we know what they're going through, but that we stand by them as they're going through it."A group of students also had an anti-gun and anti-violence forum with members of the Black Political Empowerment Projects' Greater Pittsburgh Coalition Against Violence.Linton Middle School held a moment of silence and other activities in support of Wednesday's efforts."Although the circumstances that brought many together today throughout the country remain troubling, the Penn Hills School District is proud of how our students handled our local expression of grief and support for the students and community of Parkland, Florida," Superintendent Nancy Hines said.
At Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, about 150 of the school's roughly 630 students walked out. Students wrote the names of the Parkland victims in chalk on the sidewalk and then read them aloud over the course of several minutes.
Senior Katherine Rostek said she helped to lead the walkout because she wants "my generation to be the one that makes the change."
"With the response that the kids in Parkland have had, I see a lot of activism from people who look and speak like me," said Rostek, of Sewickley. "I see myself in this change, and I think that it's important teenagers get involved and know that it's not a partisan issue to want to be safe in school."
Rostek and other student leaders said their efforts going forward will include getting students registered to vote and "making people aware of what they can do to use their voice."
Quaker Valley High School seniors Molly Henschke (left) and Tessa Kimmy write in chalk the names of the victims killed during a shooting last month at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on March 14, 2018.
Photo by Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
About 150 Quaker Valley Middle School students walked out of class and gathered on the school's athletic field overlooking Route 65 in Sewickley.
The students, in grades 6 to 8, formed a circle in the center of the field and spoke, while others sat in silence, district spokeswoman Angela Conigliaro said.
The students stayed for 17 minutes.
"I'm told it was very peaceful, just like the high school's event," Conigliaro said.
Students at Southmoreland High School gathered at the school's atrium in silence at 10 a.m.. They wrote messages on pieces of masking tape — "gun control," "I should feel safe here," "for every victim of violence" — describing why they wanted to take part in the demonstration before placing the tape over their mouths.
After 17 minutes, students removed the tape and placed it on a banner that read, "Walk out for a reason." The banner will hang in the school lobby.
"I didn't expect such a turnout, and I didn't expect so many students to take it seriously," said junior Dakota Coffman, an organizer of the event.
While some of his peers disagreed with the walkout, Coffman said he still encourages them to find a way to make their views heard.
"They have a voice, and they sure know how to use it, but what are they going to do with it?" he said.
The activity was planned in cooperation with school and district administrators.
"High school students need to learn to be active in their communities and make their views known," Superintendent John Molnar said.
Southmoreland students are working to plan a follow-up activity for April 20, Coffman said. That event will focus on connecting students with the resources they need to get registered to vote, write to lawmakers or learn more about issues like gun safety and access to mental health resources.
"We don't just want students to walk out for one day of publicity or anything," Coffman said. "We want students to learn how they can change the future."
It's silent, except for the sound of students ripping off pieces of masking tape to place over their mouths. They wrote messages like "end gun violence," "mental health awareness" and " #neveragain " on the tape. pic.twitter.com/SrrQoyJR0p— Jamie Martines (@Jamie_Martines) March 14, 2018
An administrator asked Woodland Hills High School students to raise their hands if they had been or knew anyone affected by gun violence. Hands raised throughout the packed auditorium as students prepared to walk outside just before 10 a.m.
They clutched signs, reading: "Protect Kids Not Guns" and "We are young & we are powerful."
They chanted: "We are students, we are victims, we are change."
About 500 students observed a 30-second moment of silence for the Parkland victims and for their own. The Woodland Hills community has lost several students to gun violence in its neighborhoods since the start of the school year in September.
"We need to stop this violence and come together as a community," said Ashanti Jones, 15. "Yeah. And stay together."
At 10:17 a.m., the students peacefully went back inside the school.
"I think this begins the healing process for all of our kids who lost somebody or have been affected by the gun violence," Athletic Director Ronald Coursey said afterward. "A lot of our kids struggle with finding the appropriate way to grieve. This was a great opportunity for the kids to express themselves and have their voices heard by the community at large."
Reporters Emily Balser, Dillon Carr, Bobby Cherry, Mike Divittorio, Stephanie Hacke, Stephen Huba, Jamie Martines, Matt Medsger, Joe Napsha, Tawnya Panizzi and Ben Schmitt contributed to this report.