Capital Region

Capital Region students join nationwide protests by the thousands

Many districts backed students, but some did not
Students at Schenectady High School pay tribute victims of gun violence on Wednesday..
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Students at Schenectady High School pay tribute victims of gun violence on Wednesday..

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Students in schools across the region, from Sharon Springs and Cobleskill to Schenectady and Albany, joined a nationwide walkout movement Wednesday — by the thousands.

Leaving class at 10 a.m., the students streamed to ceremonies organized to remember the 17 people killed in a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a month ago Wednesday.

Many students wore orange shirts emblazoned with “enough” and held up signs that displayed phrases like “Protect kids, not guns,” and, “Policy and change, not thoughts and prayers.”  They read the names of those who died in Florida.

At Schenectady High School, students also read the names of 17 people killed by gunfire in Schenectady in recent years.

The events were organized largely as memorials and rallies of support for the Florida victims, but many of the student organizers want to organize more political events in coming weeks and months. 

Some students from local schools on Wednesday stepped outside the ceremonies that were tacitly condoned by school administrators, choosing to risk consequences to demonstrate their views and concerns. About a dozen students at Mohonasen High School and Draper Middle School walked out of their school buildings Wednesday, despite being told that doing so could result in detention or other discipline.

Emily Ellers, a 17-year-old Mohonasen junior, said school officials held assemblies Tuesday to urge students to attend sanctioned “walk ins” inside of the school and that students would be punished for leaving the building.

Ellers was not deterred and joined about a half-dozen other students outside for a short remembrance of the Parkland victims. As she and other students left school, she said, the principal reminded them they would face consequences.

“If you are getting in trouble for what you believe, it’s not like it’s going to negatively impact me to get a two-hour [detention], because I know I stood up for what I believe is right,” Ellers said Wednesday evening.

She said even the small number of students who walked out of school sparked conversations among students and teachers inside their school.

The students faced level-two infractions of the district code of conduct, district spokeswoman Karen Nerney said. Level-two infractions are reserved for behavior that “tends to disrupt the educational process,” and can be met with punishments ranging from parental contact to in-school suspension, according to the code of conduct.

Forty-eight students from Shenendehowa Central School District took part in an unsanctioned walkout Wednesday. The students, Shen spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani said, were freshmen from Shen High School West. Defeciani confirmed the district was not aware the walkout was going to occur.

Demetra Mouzakes, a freshman who participated in the walkout, said she and a friend from class left to participate at 10 a.m., along with other students who were in the hallway at the time. The students at High School West, Mouzakes said, went out the front entrance, walked around the football field and then went back into school during the 17-minute walkout.

That demonstration wasn’t organized by any one student, she said. Instead, it came together through the students’ collective desire to take some sort of action. Any action, however small, she said, could go far in bringing attention to the issue of violence in schools.

Mouzakes said that the district’s discouragement of walking out made her nervous to participate. But ultimately, standing up for something she believes in outweighed her fear of getting into trouble, she said.

“There’s been so many school shootings, and I feel like not a lot has been done about it,” Mouzakes said. “Even if it’s just walking out, you can still get people’s attention … Just having the courage to walk out of school, that alone is something that we can be proud of.”

Students at Shen High School East, which houses sophomores, juniors, and seniors, did not walk out on Wednesday. Instead, they are organizing an event for April 20, after school, that will address school safety.

Participating in Wednesday’s walkout constituted a disruption at school, which is a level-one infraction in the Shenendehowa district’s Code of Conduct, DeFeciani said. The district responded by sending emails to the parents of students who participated, notifying them that their children participated in the walkout, she said. Earlier in the week, the district sent a message to parents and students notifying them that walking out of class for any reason was not something the district could support. The message also listed a number of actions the district would take to honor the 17 students killed in the Florida shooting, as well as upcoming opportunities for students to engage in discussions about school safety.

Outside works for others

But in schools across the region, students and district officials reached understandings that facilitated walkouts that went off without major incidents Wednesday.

A trio of ninth-grade girls organized a walkout in Sharon Springs, where about 35 students as young as seventh and eighth grade gathered at a flagpole in front of the school. 

“I feel like we are part of a movement, and we knew that, but it’s nice to feel like you are part of that,” said Emily Schuler, who organized the walkout along with her cousin Isabella Schuler and Jillian Bent.

Bent said she tried to emphasize the importance showing empathy for others when she addressed her classmates at Wednesday’s event. Reaching out to the students who are socially isolated can go a long way to preventing violent outbursts, she said.

“My key point was that you can be a friend to the kind of people that need help,” she said in the afternoon. “Those people can’t be left behind.”

At Cobleskill-Richmondville High School, a small group of seniors interested in joining the nationwide movement scored the support of dozens of their classmates.

“When we were organizing, it started off as three people with the idea … so the fact that more than three people showed up, that was amazing,” senior Sarah Jones said. About 100 students walked out at Cobleskill-Richmondville, Jones estimated.

Jones, who said she personally supports tougher gun laws but didn’t want the event to be about specific proposals, noted the sad irony that officials stressed safety concerns about students going outside to demonstrate that they don’t feel safe inside their school.

“We shouldn’t have had to have troopers at the school today to ensure our safety — that no one would come to the school while we’re standing out there honoring the memory of 17 [shooting] victims,” she said.

The turnout at Wednesday’s walkout made Jones think there is enough support and interest among students to organize another walkout in April.

In Saratoga Springs, hundreds of students filled the large sidewalk in front of the school.

About 800 students at Niskayuna High School joined the walkout – about three-quarters of the school’s student body of 1,400, school officials estimated.

The students, some wearing orange “Enough” t-shirts — the emerging student movement’s adopted color — exited the school at 10 a.m. and walked toward the flagpole patio near the school’s parking lot. Young men and women quickly filled the pavement around the flagpole.

Officials in districts across the region worked to ensure security for outside events. Several Niskayuna police cars were at the school, and the entrance to the campus from Balltown Road was blocked by a district school bus during the ceremony.

Senior Suzanne Davis, 18, who helped organize the event, read the names of all 17 people killed during the Feb. 14 shootings in Florida. Students released an orange balloon in memory of each person.

Davis and other Niskayuna student organizers are planning to walk out of school again on April 20 – the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting and another day marked for nationwide protests. During that demonstration, students don’t plan to return to class, instead rallying for gun control at Niskayuna Town Hall.

School officials said they worked with students who organized Wednesday’s observance, but that they wouldn’t condone or facilitate future walkouts. Students who leave school for a second walkout will face consequences, district officials have said.

“We couldn’t let these children die in vain, which we’ve done too many times,” Davis said after Wednesday’s observance. “Every time one of these shootings happens, it’s washed away within a couple days in the next news cycle. We refused to let that happen this time.”

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