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RI EDUCATION

Students walk out of Pawtucket schools to protest school safety issues, gun violence

Student organizer Zachary Pinto, 17, said the effort was meant to show that students are tired and scared for their safety. But when students from William E. Tolman High School returned from their march to city hall, they found that they had been locked out of their school.

Students from Shea High School walk out to protest the nation's gun policies, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Pawtucket, R.I. Organizer Zachary Pinto, 17, said his fellow students told them they were frustrated, angry and in pain after the last week's school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. He led students to a rally at city hall where they were then joined by other local high school students.David Goldman/Associated Press

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — More than 150 students walked out of classes at three Pawtucket high schools on Wednesday and marched to city hall to ask lawmakers for better gun control laws, fewer cops in schools, and more counselors.

Student organizer Zachary Pinto, 17, a senior at Shea High School, put together the event in three days after fellow students came to him with the idea to organize a protest so students’ voices could be heard. Pinto told the Globe the effort was meant to emphasize that students are tired and scared that school environments around America are not safe.

The students from Charles E. Shea High School, William E. Tolman High School, and Blackstone Academy Charter School began the walkout at 10:57 a.m. and arrived at Pawtucket Veterans Memorial Park at about 11:30 a.m. They heard from Pinto, community organizer and Democrat candidate for governor Luis Daniel Munoz, and progressive State Senator Cynthia Mendes, who encouraged them to get involved in this year’s elections and challenge people in power.

“Seeing the power of Pawtucket youth, how something was put together over the course of three days, and having such a good turnout gives me a good feeling,” Pinto said. “There’s a feeling of sorrow that we have to get together and do this. We have to take time away from our education to plead with legislators to protect us.”

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Pawtucket high school students attend a rally at city hall after walking out of their schools to protest the nation's gun policies, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Pawtucket, R.I. Organizer Zachary Pinto, 17, said his fellow students told him they were frustrated, angry and in pain after last week's school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. David Goldman/Associated Press

The event was billed as a protest against “unjust laws that endanger our schools.”

Pinto said that referred to legal high-capacity magazines, guns, and laws that allow 18-year-olds to buy them.

“The lack of gun control across the nation is what we were getting at with that,” he said.

Though the student event was about school safety, Mendes, who is running for Lieutenant Governor, also spoke about abortion access. She said she stayed after the walkout to speak with students for more than an hour and explained some of the current proposed legislation on gun control. She said the students told her that they want their safety prioritized.

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“Up until the slaughter at Uvalde, these bills were held for further study,” Mendes said. “We don’t just need the bill but politicians that won’t sell us out. They want bold action on guns and safety. They want fewer cops in schools and more counselors.”

After the walkout was over, Pinto said students returned to their schools to finish out the school day, however, Mendes and Pinto said that Tolman administrators did not allow students to re-enter the school, citing a “school policy.” The secretary for Tolman High School Principal C. Christopher Savastano told a Globe reporter that the principal was “in a meeting” and that refusing re-entry to students was a “school policy” before referring the call to the superintendent’s office.

Blackstone Academy is an independent school district within the Pawtucket city limits that makes its own policies, the school’s Executive Director Carolyn Sheehan told the Globe in an email Wednesday night.

“I just want to be clear that students at Blackstone Academy who attended the walk-out were expected back to class at the end of the rally,” Sheehan said. “Fortunately, the walk-out was timed so that it mainly affected lunch time and advisory time. Our students were all back in their classrooms about an hour and 10 minutes after they left school.”

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Mendes says she waited with “dozens of students” at Tolman, which is located across the street from city hall, who were locked out.

“The school’s answer was it’s a safety concern,” Mendes said. “The students had me call all their parents.”

“Tolman High School was not allowing students back in to retrieve their things,” Pinto said. “I doubt students from Shea will face retaliation. There were talks with my mother about getting suspended. I’m more worried about Tolman students, and it sounds like the administration is not talking it well.”

Neither Savastano nor Pawtucket Superintendent Dr. Cheryl McWilliams immediately responded to the Globe’s request for comment about why students were not allowed to return. The student handbook linked on the school’s website does not show any policy that forbids students from returning to school after an unauthorized dismissal, though it does note that the penalty for an unexcused absence, which includes unauthorized dismissal, is “up to 10 days detention.”

This article has been updated with additional information from Blackstone Academy.


Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.