NISKAYUNA — Students don’t feel safe in their schools, and they are starting to do something about it.
One-by-one, a group of Niskayuna eighth- and ninth-graders on Tuesday night calmly and matter-of-factly stepped before the school board to demand safety improvements at the district’s schools and expressing concern they could be the next devastated by a school shooting.
The students, some as young as 13, signaled the visit to the board meeting wouldn’t be the last stop for the emerging activists. Students in districts across the region are planning walk-outs and forums.
The Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead at the hands of a former student armed with a military-style rifle, “made clear that gun violence can happen in even the safest of communities,” Emma Anderson, a 14-year-old Niskayuna High School freshman told the school board.
The students cited spotty communications systems at the high school, insufficient lockdown drills — they’ve had one so far this year — and limited front-entrance security as areas the district could make immediate safety improvements. The students said there are too many other building entrances where students allow people in through side doors. They also called for a school resource officer and increased police patrols in and around school campus.
“Now, after seeing a shooting happen in a school just like our own, we need something to change before we become another heart-wrenching statistic,” Selwa Khan, a 14-year-old freshman at Niskayuna High School, told the school board as she led off the group of a half dozen young speakers.
The students said raising their safety concerns wasn’t meant as disrespect to school administrators.
“We don’t want to work against you, we want to work with you to close these safety gaps,” said Gloria Doudoukjian, also a 14-year-old high school freshman. “Please do not discount us students, do not be condescending to us and our use of social media, do not brush us off like we are blowing this out of proportion … We are angry, we are anxious, we are scared, this is not acceptable.”
In what the district superintedent later called the most "salient" point of the night, another freshman pointed out the importance of intervening with students struggling with mental health challeneges as early as possible.
“Not to send them away but to give them support, love and affection before they reach their breaking point and it’s too late,” said Rohan Menon, a high school freshman.
Niskayuna students, like students in a growing number districts across the region and country, are planning walk-outs in March and April intended to demonstrate concerns about school shootings.
Iroquis Middle School eighth-grader Ava Giagni, 13, said at Tuesday’s meeting she and about two dozen other students were planning to join the walk-outs.
Student organizers have started to work with administrators in Schenectady, Shenendehowa and other area districts to work out the details of how students can carry out protests in the safest and most effective way.
Niskayuna Superintendent Cosmio Tangorra Jr. plans to take up that discussion with students at a student forum scheduled at the high school Thursday. But at Tuesday night’s meeting, after hearing from the students, Tangorra signaled he doesn’t think a walk-out is the best way for students to convey their message.
“We also have an obligation to ensure the educational process is not disruptive,” he told those gathered at the meeting after the students had finishing speaking. “Getting up and walking out of class, getting up and walking out of school is not only unproductive, in many ways it’s irresponsible.”
Tangorra said he wanted to work with the students to find “productive ways to become activists” and suggested leaving class was not the best way to lobby lawmakers or use their political power. When asked after the meeting if it was possible for the walk-out protests to be organized to minimize disruptions, he reiterated his earlier statement.
“They are supposed to be in school, there are ways for them to better demonstrate to elected officials that students are taking this really seriously,” Tangorra said. “We aren’t condoning a walk-out.”
Suzie Davis, the Niskayuna High School senior organizing the school’s walkout, said by email that the students planning to walk out are “stressing that this is a walk-out in honor of the victims in Parkland.” While she didn't want to discuss the plans in detail before Thursday's student forum, she said they plan to quietly leave class, share in a moment of silence, read the names of the victims for 17 minutes and then return to class.
“We will have to hear how the administration and our student congress feels regarding this walk-out, but I know many students who will participate even if punishments are imposed for missing class time,” Davis said.