When many Schenectady students speak about gun violence – as they did during a walkout and rally Wednesday morning – they do so from experience.
T’azhane’ McCullin, an 11th-grader, fought back tears as she described how her brother’s uncle was shot and killed on her brother’s birthday. Blessin Green’s dad was shot and killed in Brooklyn when she was 10.
“He was always smiling -- no matter what, he was trying to get a better life,” Green, also an 11th-grader, said of her father.
Schenectady students see the impacts of gun violence in their everyday lives. They know victims and perpetrators. They live with the fear that, at any moment, a stray bullet can end their lives or a loved one’s life.
“We shouldn’t have to be scared to go outside, go to school, go to our little cousin’s birthday party,” said 11th-grader Jorianna Graham. We shouldn’t be scared to do these things -- everyday things that everybody else gets to do, but why can’t we?”
Hundreds of Schenectady High School students streamed out of class and school Wednesday morning, gathering in the school's back parking lot to recognize victims of a Florida school shooting and to acknowledge Schenectady’s own victims of gunfire.
Seventeen students stood at the front of the gathering holding signs adorned with the names of 14 students and three school employees who were killed in the Florida school last month. Each student read the name of the person they represented. The names -- along with short biographies of the victims -- were read in a matter of moments.
“My name is Alyssa Alhadeff. I was 14 years old. I played soccer for Parkland travel soccer and attended camp Coleman,” one student said. “My name is Martin Duque Anguiano. I was 14 years old. I was loved by my family and older brother Miguel,” another said.
Students in schools across the region and the country carried out similar walkouts, protests and rallies as part of a nationwide stand of solidarity.
But in Schenectady, students and teachers have known their own victims of gun violence -- not the victims of a single massacre, but the victims of regular gun-related incidents. Don’t forget those victims, too, the students said.
“To those we have lost: You’re remembered, and your legacy continues to live on,” said Ja’Deana Cognetta-Whitfield, whose cousin Terrill Reese was shot to death when he was 18.
“I felt the world literally shift under my feet,” she said of the moment her grandma told her Reese had been killed. “I had just seen him a few weeks prior. He hugged me, told me to be safe and to stay out of trouble. How could this be possible?”
She described -- standing with crowd of students and staff -- her gradual awakening, as a young child, to the reality and prevalence of guns in her community.
“We must stop normalizing gun violence in our community,” she said. “It’s not normal to have a memorial site on every corner of a street. It’s not normal that we have to have this mindset that we aren’t safe in our own city -- in our own home.”
Students read the names of Reese and 16 other people from Schenectady who died in different forms of gun violence. The same students who, moments earlier, embodied victims from a faraway Florida community did the same for people from their hometown.
“Our dreams, our futures, our lives were all cut short due to gun violence,” one of the Schenectady students said after the 34th name had been read.
Teachers and administrators joined the students, following entire classrooms out of the building. The school’s leaders have supported the protest and sought to empower student activism.
“I’m thrilled to be able to support you,” said school Principal Diane Wilkinson, over the school’s intercom system Wednesday morning, before handing the microphone to student organizers.
Before the 10 a.m. walkout, art teacher Natalie Boburka talked briefly with her students about the importance of voting and sharing their views, connecting the day’s activism to class lessons about how artists around the world have expressed political views through their their work.
“You guys are going to vote in the future. You’re gonna' fix this and keep us safe,” she told her class of about a dozen students. “This is about voting and your power.”
In Schenectady’s neighboring suburban districts, students have expressed fear in recent weeks that their schools could be the next to be terrorized by a shooting. In public meetings and forums with administrators, they have called for better school security and improved mental health services. Some Schenectady students said they wish their peers in nearby districts would do more to sympathize with Schenectady’s gun problems.
“At least try to understand. Even though they don’t, at least try, because it may seem like a distant situation to them, but this is what’s happening in front of our eyes, in our families, in our communities, in our schools,” said Jorianna Graham.
“We have to face this every day,” said 11th-grader Jeyona Clark, interjecting as her classmate spoke.
They aren’t asking for much, the Schenectady students suggested.
“I don’t want my kid to live in fear. I want my kid to live a normal life. I want them to go outside, have fun, play with their friends and not have to worry,” McCullin said of the world in which she hopes to raise a family one day.