Secondary students around the state participated in a national demonstration that intended to raise awareness and, in some cases, spread a political message about gun violence in schools.
The movement, organized by the national Women’s March advocacy group, called for students across the country to walk out for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. on March 14 to honor the victims of the Parkland, Fla. high school shooting that occurred on Valentine’s Day and killed 17 students and faculty.
In Rhode Island, students from secondary schools in Warwick, Johnston and Cranston all participated. At Pilgrim High School and Toll Gate High School in Warwick, large crowds of students participated in moments of silence and speeches were given to rally students to become advocates to fight against gun violence.
Toll Gate’s movement, organized by the Toll Gate Civic Action Coalition, set up a display of 17 chairs – each with a name of a student or faculty member who died in the most recent shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Pilgrim students held signs saying “Patriots for Parkland,” “Enough is Enough,” and signs that featured the names of those in Parkland who died.
According to the school administration all four events were student-run and backed with faculty support. At Winman students were encouraged to wear burgundy or silver, the Parkland school colors. At 10 a.m. Winman 7th graders met in the gym while the 8th graders met in the auditorium. During the 17-minute ceremony, the names of the students who lost their lives were read and a triangle was chimed for each of the deceased. There was also a moment of silence and a song by the school chorale as well as artwork in memory of the lost students. A similar program was held at Vets in the school gymnasium. Principal David Tober said he and an 8th grader spoke to the gathering, the theme being respect and kindness. Tober said each student was asked to introduce themselves to 17 new people and say something kind.
“Students who have had enough of gun violence and our country emerge to say never again,” said Pilgrim senior class president Sophia Carter, an organizer for the Pilgrim walkout. “I am proud to see that all of you have joined this movement to ensure that we do not allow this issue to be swept to the side once again.”
Due to the snow from Tuesday’s storm, the walkout at Pilgrim – which was supported by the school’s principal Gerald Habershaw and the administration – was moved from outside into the auditorium. However a smaller group of students opted to go outside regardless, splintering off from the main group inside. Regardless of where they stood, Carter said the students’ interest in showing up and participating in the demonstration was evident of their dedication to the cause.
“The goal of this walkout is to show legislators and those in power that we will not remain complacent while our classmates across America fear going to school every day,” Carter continued. “We are all here because we agree that something is fundamentally wrong when students across the country have to gather to mourn the senseless deaths of their peers.”
While some felt the demonstration shouldn’t be political in nature, Carter – who last week joined student delegates from across the nation in D.C. to talk about gun violence in schools, including students from Parkland, Fla., took the moment to share her thoughts on ways in which other school shootings may be prevented.
“Call for a ban on assault weapons to minimize the destruction carried out by those who want to do harm. Speak out on behalf of increased mental health services for those who need it. Be diligent and say something when you recognize signs of violence in someone you know,” she said. “Advocate for better training of law enforcement and school administrators to recognize and prevent gun violence. Support Governor [Gina] Raimondo’s Red Flag Bill, which allows the courts to remove weapons from those who are danger to themselves and others. Call your senators and representatives and urge them to support mandatory waiting periods and expanded universal background checks.”
At the same time, Carter was cognizant that preventing gun violence was not a simple matter.
“Anyone who stands in front of you and tells you that they have one simple solution to this complicated problem is wrong,” she said. “Gun violence looks different in every community and every situation, and no one solution is going to stop every instance of future gun violence.”
Carter spoke about how the main purpose of the demonstration was to honor the victims, but also that the fact that over 2,800 people have already been killed by gun violence in the first few months of 2018 – including “125 children age 0-11 and 534 teenagers our age” – means something has to be done.
“While honoring their memory, we must also take this as a call to action, we need to protest the inaction of our government and hold them accountable for the lives of the students they pledged to protect when they entered public service,” Carter said.
Following her speech, the gymnasium, which was about one-third filled with Pilgrim students, went silent for about 10 minutes in memoriam of those who have passed away.