Kindness, safety, respect are part of message in day’s events in region

Citizen Chronicle Writers
editor@TheCitizenChronicle.com

One month to the day after 17 lives were lost in a tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students across the region took part in the National School Walkout on Wednesday morning.

The walkouts were to be held at 10 a.m. in each time zone from coast to coast, and lasted 17 minutes — one minute for each life lost in the shooting. Numerous area schools took part despite several districts calling for two-hour delays as a result of Tuesday’s nor’easter. Many of the participating districts restricted access, citing safety concerns or a desire for the event to be by and about students.

At Shepherd Hill Regional High School in Dudley, scores of students made their way to the parking lots to gather for their walkout. Hannah Sharma, a sophomore, was an organizer of the Shepherd Hill walkout. In an interview, she said participating students were to leave their classes at 10 a.m. and exit the school through the cafeteria doors to gather in the rear parking lot next to the athletic fields. To honor victims of the MSDHS shooting, a 17-minute moment of silence would be held with the name of one victim read aloud each minute. Throughout the day, a large vinyl banner was available in the school cafeteria for students to sign. That banner will now be sent to Parkland, Fla.

Ms. Sharma said another aspect of the day’s event included speaking about “small things” students can do, such as talking to people who usually sit alone, to “contribute to a positive school atmosphere.” She said the message of organizers has been unity, rather than political controversy.

“To me, this walkout means unification of students,” Ms. Sharma said. “I have not brought up gun control or any certain topic. I want this to be a community effort.”

Hadley Zibel, a Shepherd Hill senior, said in a post-walkout interview that the event was very important to her.

“I was struck deeply when I heard about the Parkland shooting a month ago,” she said. “As someone who eventually hopes to go into the political field, I was empowered by the students at Stoneman Douglas and what they have done in the wake of this tragedy. To me, this meant students demanding to be heard, demanding safety in schools, and demanding real reform. It was also a way to honor the victims and show our unity.”

Ms. Zibel added: “I want change. I want politicians to realize that we, teenagers, are citizens of this nation, too. And we demand safety. I want the world to know how serious my generation is about this cause, and how if we work together we can accomplish anything.”

Ms. Sharma fellow students “mostly responded positively and many people want to participate.” For those who opted to take part, Ms. Sharma said, school administrators pledged to allow the walkout to take place without repercussion.

“The administration told me there would be absolutely no punishment for participants unless they violated regular school rules,” she said. “The faculty and administration was completely on board from the start. I am very grateful that they were so open to this idea.”

Ms. Zibel also credited school administrators for their support of the students.

“The administration at my school was very supportive,” she said. “They helped order the banner I mentioned above, and even watched on as we stood in silence commemorating the victims.”

After the walkout, Ms. Sharma said participation was strong as “there was a very big turnout.” Ms. Zibel concurred.

“I was nervous going into the Walkout. I wasn’t sure how many people planned to participate, although there was a lot of buzz in the school about it. Leaving class and walking through the halls was exhilarating, I saw my peers filing out into the corridors, and when we got outside, I was joined by at least a third, probably more, of my school,” she said. “I guess you could say it went very well. A highlight was that we had a banner made that students could sign. It would be sent to Parkland to show our unity in this cause.”

Ms. Zibel said the event was ultimately one to remember and has given her hope that change can happen.

“I’m very proud of my school community today. I saw kids walking out looking strong, and powerful. They looked determined for change. This is where it begins. This is where the future starts,” she said. “History has eyes on us, and I was proud to have been part of this incredible experience.”

In Southbridge, students privately took part in the walkout, according to Public Schools Receiver/Superintendent Jeffrey Villar. “They really made us proud. The students conducted themselves so well,” he said after the walkout, noting that planned supervision was in place, but that respectful behavior by the students did not require intervention by adult leaders.

Villar said a student leader spoke about the need to feel safe and respected at school, followed by 17 minutes of silence. Villar coordinated with the Southbridge Police Department to close off the perimeter of the campus during the time of the protest as a safety precaution. Only those directly involved with the operation of the school, such as students, staff, and administrators, were able to attend.

In Northbridge, students Belle Croteau and Madison Ireland were credited as “taking the lead” in that school’s walkout. In a video of the Northbridge walkout posted by the school’s broadcast production program, Ms. Croteau said, “We’ve grown up with the threat of school shootings looming over us. This is a problem that impacts our generation and we’re finally old enough to say that we’re fed up with it. We’re here today to not only honor the lives of the 17 students and teachers killed in Florida, but to say enough is enough. We want to be safe here at school, we want to go home to our families at the end of the day. Being proactive, speaking up, learning the warning signs, and continuing to campaign for what you think is right are all ways that we can make a difference.”

The names and ages of the victims of the shooting were read aloud and a banner unfurled that read: “Northbridge High School Stands With Parkland School.” That banner was then signed by students who had assembled in the school gymnasium.

In the Northbridge video, student Madison Ireland tells viewers, “Northbridge stands with you. We are absolutely honored to be able to be here today and do what so many other high schools around the country are doing right now.”

At Oxford High School, a two-hour delay to the school day resulted in a delay to the walkout to 1 p.m. Students had the option of going to the gym to participate in the event or going to the cafeteria if they did not want to take part. Oxford Police and Fire department representatives attended in support of the students’ message. Seventeen students took turns going to the podium. Each recited the name of a person who was killed in Parkland and then shared an inspirational quote. Police Sgt. Jeromy Grniet presented a flag to the students.  Then the 17 Oxford students, but not all of the participating students, went outside to release balloons in remembrance. Some students in Oxford chose not to take part in the walkout events, staying behind in the school cafeteria.

In Webster, students and staff were given yellow rubber bracelets that read: “In Webster Kindness Matters.” Superintendent of Schools Ruthann Goguen took to Twitter to share images of the bracelets, noting they were distributed to “start our district wide initiative of spreading kindness and using our voices to speak up when something is not right.”

At Bartlett High School, students and staff assembled in the gymnasium and signed a large banner that read: “We honor the memory of the 17 students and staff who lose their lives in the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as well as the victims and families of similar tragedies across our nation. BHS pledges to support and respect all races, ethnicities, and human differences. We stand together, united in our collective vigilance and support of each other to keep our schools and community safe for all.” Student Council President Kelsey Price led a moment of silence as part of the Webster school’s walkout event.

At Auburn High School, students assembled in the gymnasium and formed a number 17 for a group photo, with two staff members holding paper signs that read “End Violence In Schools.” Students and staff used social media to post numerous photos from various classrooms with students holding handmade paper signs with messages such as “End Gun Violence,” “Protect Kids Not Guns,” and “No More Silence End Gun Violence.”

Tantasqua Regional High School held its walkout, though one student told The Citizen Chronicle only about 40 students took part. In response to The Citizen Chronicle’s efforts to cover the walkout there, TRHS Principal Michael Lucas provided a statement addressed to parents, students, and “the Extended Tantasqua Community.”

Mr. Lucas wrote that “some students contacted the high school administration, noting their intention to organize and participate in the National School Walkout” on Wednesday morning.

“In meeting with some student leaders over the past few weeks, it has become clear that the goal of the Tantasqua’s students planned participation is based on a desire to honor the students who perished in the Parkland tragedy with 17 minutes of silence, as well as others lives lost due to school violence,” he said. “Our students hope to come together as a community to show its collective vigilance against violence and support of each other. This event is being led by students for students.”

Mr. Lucas explained the Tantasqua walkout would begin at 10 a.m. as students exited though the main foyer doors and “walk out to an on-campus location where they will meet for 17 minutes, after which they will return to classrooms.” He added: “This is an opportunity to have our students model effective communication, civic and civil responsibility, respect for others, the acceptance of disparate points of view, and the articulation of thoughts and ideas — all of which are part of our core values.”

Similar to some other schools, students signed a banner that will be sent to Parkland.

Tantasqua students who did not want to take part in the walkout were to remain in class and teachers were to continue with normal instruction, Mr. Lucas said. Those who opted to walk out were told they are responsible for the work they may have missed and would be asked to write a reflection to be shared with legislators “about why they felt compelled to participate in this civil act.”

Mr. Lucas stated any students who participated in the walkout in an inappropriate manner, or to disrupt the planned activity, would be subject to consequences in accordance with school rules.

In two local middle schools, students attended assemblies that school officials felt were poignant considering the somber tone of the walkouts. At Charlton Middle School, officials opted to hold an assembly in which Charlton Police Detective Richard McGrath and Charlton Fire Chief Edward J. Knopf spoke with students and faculty about lock-down procedures and practices.

The Oxford Middle School Twitter account tweeted: “OMS encouraged students this morning to Walk Up, Not Out. We have challenged students should try harder to reach out with friendliness and compassion to their peers, creating a welcoming and more inclusive school community. How do we do this? We challenge you to Walk UP: to a  kid who is sitting alone at lunch and invite him or her to join you, to someone say hello and strike up a conversation, to someone you don’t know very well and talk to them, to a teacher or staff member and thank them for what they do. There are so many ways to BE KIND. Changing the way we treat each other takes more courage and will make a lasting impact on the world around us. Stand up, Be kind, Be respectful.”

While a walkout was not part of the day’s activities at Oxford Middle School, students were invited to sign a banner in support of the “enough” message, and a moment of silence was held in the afternoon in honor of the Parkland victims.

Countless students from coast to coast took part in the movement, initially propagated by the Women’s March Youth Empower. According to that group’s website, more than 3,100 schools registered to take part in walkouts. Walkouts that did not register to affiliate with Women’s March Youth Empower are not included in that number.

Across this region, registered walkouts included Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Burncoat High School in Worcester, Grafton High School, Shrewsbury High School, South High School in Worcester, Sutton High School and Woodstock Academy in Woodstock, Conn.

The walkout even translated to dead air on television, with several Viacom-owned networks — including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon — going off air for the 17-minute duration of the national event.

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