Students walk out for safety

Published 5:17 pm Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Exactly one month after 17 deaths at a Florida high school, 620 students gathered in Lakeland High School’s auditorium to demand change.

“Together we gather for the deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and to fight for change on our campus,” Lakeland sophomore and student organizer Paul Meadors said during the event on Wednesday.

The nationwide movement called for a 17-minute walkout to mourn the losses in Parkland and to demand gun reform from Congress. Students at Lakeland gathered to demand change regarding security within their own walls.

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While Lakeland students gathered in their auditorium, other Suffolk Public Schools participated by walking out of the building. A total of almost 50 percent of students from Suffolk high schools and middle schools participated, according to numbers provided by school division spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw.

No students were reprimanded due to the protest, but the Suffolk Police Department was asked to assign additional officers, Bradshaw said.

In an email Tuesday afternoon, Bradshaw initially told the Suffolk News-Herald a reporter would not be permitted to attend the event at any Suffolk public school. She said the schools could not determine which students have a media opt-out form on file, since they did not know ahead of time which students would participate. She also cited Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney’s letter to parents last week, which stated that “participation will be limited to enrolled students and staff.”

However, after the News-Herald objected to the decision, Bradshaw agreed early Wednesday morning to allow a reporter to observe at Lakeland. Bradshaw accompanied the reporter and demanded that no photos be taken and no interviews be done on campus.

“This morning there was a buzz in the school about the walkout, and people were getting excited,” Meadors said in a phone interview after the school day was over. “We only expected around 260 people, and it was a surprise to see so many people. It added to the value and the power of today.”

Meadors gave a passionate speech during the event, reminding his classmates that Marjory Stoneman Douglas was unprepared for the attack they faced and that a similar event is possible anywhere.

“Once we received threats, we realized that this is real and could happen here,” Meadors said. “I felt empowered to see change happen.”

Lakeland, like many area high schools, was a target of a rash of threats on Feb. 20, and Meadors reminded students of the fear they felt when rumors of the threat surfaced.

“Today is where we change that,” Meadors said. “Today we call on our school board and school administrators to protect us from any threat and help any student who needs psychiatric help. Security and mental illness are what we need to change, and Suffolk Public Schools and the Board of Education needs to see that.”

To show their support, Mayor Linda T. Johnson and School Board member Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck attended and voiced praise for the students who walked out of class.

“You have a voice, and you have the right to use your voice,” Johnson said. “Change starts when we communicate with each other. Change starts with you and me talking. Change starts right here with what you’re doing today, and you’re doing it right.”

“In a democracy that works, an effective advocate respects the rights and opinions of others, determines what the facts really are and tries to begin to work towards a resolution of differences,” Brooks-Buck said.

Some critics of the national movement have focused on the youth of the students and say students are merely pawns in the event organized by well-heeled liberal interests. The sophomore student organizer at Lakeland rejected that notion.

“I think one thing we as students recognized was we needed to make our school safer, and it was the first thing I saw that could be changed by kids our age,” Meadors said in the phone interview. “Everyone can get behind a safer school. It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal. A safer school is a bipartisan issue.”

While the national conversation on gun reform continues, both of the elected officials at Lakeland spoke in favor of it and in favor of not having persons armed on campus. Both speakers’ comments were met with cheering and applause.

“You have the right to go to school in a safe place,” Brooks-Buck said. “Teachers have the right to teach in a safe environment. I believe that guns in school should only be carried by resource officers.”

“Nobody needs a bump stock, and nobody needs an assault weapon,” Johnson said. “I say that because that’s what I believe. I believe our schools are meant to be what my husband and I grew up in, a happy and safe place to go.”

While Meadors spoke to his classmates, he reminded them of another movement borne from the national walkout movement — the walk-up movement.

Meadors tasked his classmates to be friendlier and to make the effort to speak to students they don’t know. As a former new kid at Lakeland, Meadors explained that a lack of friendly interaction can make school hard, and mental health is just as important as school security.

“Close your eyes,” Meadors said. “Think about a kid that gets bullied in school. He gets called things behind his or her back and gets poked and prodded. When you are this kid you are paralyzed by fear and you go home, and from there mental illness like depression sits in.”

The walk-up movement asks students to speak to at least 14 new students and three new teachers that they don’t know every day, representing the 14 students and three staff members who lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last month.