Capital Region

Student organizers find passion after school shooting

Walkouts planned for Wednesday
Niskayuna High students involved in the March 14 walkout are pictured
Niskayuna High students involved in the March 14 walkout are pictured

In schools across the country on Wednesday, students are going to get up from their seats at 10 a.m., leave class and walk outside. At ceremonies, they plan to read the names of the 17 students and school staff killed in a Florida school last month.

At Schenectady High School, students plan to join the nationwide movement in their own way. After the Schenectady students read the names and short bios of the Florida students, they plan to read 17 other names: the names and stories of Schenectady students and loved ones killed by gun violence in recent years.

“It’s kind of not new to us, because the people on our list, we know these people, we know people who die from gun violence,” said Schenectady senior Dominique Dunlap, one of a handful of students organizing a walkout at the school.

As the national walkout movement sparked by the survivors of the Florida shooting lands in the Capital Region – at schools in Niskayuna, Saratoga, Ballston Spa, Scotia-Glenville and more – the Schenectady students want to remind people that they have long lived with the trauma and fear of everyday gun violence.

“I’ve heard people say I’m scared to go to school now,” Dunlap said. “Being in these urban communities, especially being black, I’ve always felt that fear anywhere I go. A policeman can take my life and not get any charge or I can die in my own community by a stray bullet or something. It’s always been there with us.”

But gun violence has also crept into the fringes of communities like Saratoga Springs and Niskayuna.

Saratoga High School senior Sara Zlotnick’s cousin was killed in the mass shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November; other family members are still recovering from the massacre there. She registered Saratoga as a site for the March 14 walkouts within days of the movement spreading.

“After I had gone through the sadness and the grief, it was just infuriating,” she said. “I’m like how did this happen? How have we been having this for so long? That kind of continued on to this.”

One of Will Carswell’s best friends in childhood died in a gun accident as a young kid. Carswell has also joined in organizing the Saratoga walkout.

“I was in fourth grade and my best friend died, that was a very pivotal moment in my life,” Carswell said. “I’ve always wanted to do something about it, but I haven’t really … This was a really empowering thing and now is the time I can make a change.”

And the students in Saratoga Springs, Niskayuna, Shenendehowa and so many other districts saw in Parkland a school and community like their own. The stories of the dead students felt like their own stories. Students and families have filled school board meetings in recent weeks to express fear and concern about the extent of school safety measures in place at local schools.

“To see some place that is like us have that happen …” said Matthew Taylor, one of about 10 Saratoga students organizing the walkout. “We’re so similar in a sense, to me it’s like, wow, that can actually happen here. I think that’s what clicked in a lot of kids’ minds.”

In the days that followed the shooting, students discussed what they would do if something similar happened in their own schools. How safe are those windows? How do the doors lock? What would happen if someone pulled a fire alarm to draw students into the halls?

“We’re done with it,” Zlotnick said. “We shouldn’t have to go to school, and no one should have to go to work either, and be worried about, oh my God does this door lock? Is there a corner for me to hide in?”

The March 14 walkouts are largely designed as non-political commemorations of the Parkland victims. Administrators in most area districts are tacitly approving of the student activism, working with organizers to ensure the events are safe for students and minimally disruptive.

The student organizers are hoping the walkouts can serve as a platform to engage students in activism and empower them to stand up for their beliefs. The student groups plan to include voter registration drives and letter-writing campaigns into various events in the coming weeks.

“There are students at our school who want gun control, there are students who don’t want gun control, and whatever side you are on we want you to be able to make your voice heard, because it’s important in this discussion,” Taylor said.

“And we all at the end of the day, no matter where you stand, want to come to school safe,” Zlotnick added. “Whether you love guns or hate guns, nobody wants their kid or grandkid or niece or nephew to be killed in school, that’s awful.”

But the students are also eyeing ways to continue the activism and momentum in more explicitly political forms. The Saratoga and Schenectady student organizers are looking into ways to get students to a march in Washington later this month; Niskayuna students plan to join marches in New York City and Albany.

“We are trying to get everyone involved, we are trying to get everyone to know that this is our time, and we are all closer to the age where we can finally legally vote and make change that way,” said Lulu Alryati, a Niskayuna senior.

On April 20, the Niskayuna students are planning another walkout, though, unlike plans for a short event on March 14 focused on victims, that walkout and a rally at Town Hall is meant to focus on urging lawmakers to pass gun control.

The students, who say they will accept any consequences that may be associated with leaving class, said their message reaches beyond improving schools safety; their message is that gun laws need to be stronger.

“The kids in Parkland, the kids in Columbine, the kids in Newtown, Conn., they didn’t die because their schools weren’t safe,” said Suzie Davis, one of the organizers at Niskayuna, listing the locations of major school shootings. “They died because people have access to guns and they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t be allowed to have these weapons so easily available and so easily used on children in their learning environments.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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