CLIFTON PARK — Students at the Shenendehowa Central School District came out in force Friday afternoon for National School Walkout Day.
High school students all over country and the Capital Region walked out of classes Friday to protest what they feel is a lack of action toward making their schools safe. The student movement comes in the wake of deadly shootings and recent threats.
Friday was the 19th anniversary of a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, when 13 people were killed by two armed students.
Shen’s activities began at 1 p.m., with hundreds of students opting to leave class and brave frigid winds whipping across the football field. As people began to stream onto the field, many holding signs, some student organizers were moved to tears by the demonstration.
“It’s really emotional,” said Claire Merkle, a senior at Shen and one of the event's organizers. “It’s really amazing. We didn’t expect this many people to come. There are a lot of faces that we recognize, and we didn’t think that they’d come out, but they did.”
Merkle said she though around 50 students would show up.
On the football field were booths dedicated to helping eligible students register to vote and tips for getting in touch with elected representatives. Students walked around the track while paying tribute to students who were killed in their schools. Others participated in a song-circle in the middle of the field.
Students on both political sides came out for the event. But the interactions were peaceful.
Nida Ansari, a senior at Shen, said that the event was not meant to be political. The point, she said, was to bring all students together to make sure their collective voice was heard.
“I think students are the voice of the next generation, and it’s important to elevate that voice and to have a conversation,” she said.
“Politics aside, it’s a school safety issue. Nobody wants to get hurt.” said Shruthi Nattanmai, a senior.
After the walkout, student organizers hosted a public town hall panel at which school officials, teachers, and local advocates discussed safety in schools.
Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said one safety measure he would like to see is a larger police presence on the school campus. But, he added that students themselves can often contribute by simply reaching out to each other and fostering a feeling of community in school.
“I have a lot of confidence in you,” he said to the students at the event. “And you are where this all starts."
High school Principal Ron Agostinoni said that, along with setting aside funds for improved school safety systems, the district is planning to partner with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department to make training videos that will show students how to respond to emergency situations, such as mass shootings during busy periods of the school day, like lunch.
Patricia Nugent, organizer at the League of Women Voters, said student activism can be furthered simply by voting.
“It doesn’t matter how you vote. Only that you do vote,” she said.
Panelists also commented on the role of the media in shaping the debate about gun ownership and school safety.
Tracey Fountain, organizer at Moms Demand Action, said media coverage of gun violence is a double-edged sword.
“We need media to be reporting on things that are happening, on things like gun violence when it does happen. The media is good for that. It can amplify those things,” she said. But she said issues like gun violence in minority communities often go unacknowledged.
Julia McHale, a Shen senior on the panel, said news coverage of student activism will only help students make sure their voices are heard.
“The media gives it to a much wider audience. The entire Capitol Region will see what happened at Shen today,” she said.