Students plan walkouts over gun violence, and administrators try to strike a balance
As hundreds of Massachusetts high school students plan to walk out of class Wednesday as part of a nationwide protest against gun violence, many administrators say they have struggled to strike a balance between giving students space to express their beliefs while not endorsing views that might offend some other students and parents.
To that end, many superintendents have urged students to frame their planned walkouts as a way to honor the 17 people killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and not as a call for stricter gun laws.
“I would say most of the superintendents I have spoken to have tried to divert the students from focusing on gun control,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “We know it’s a politically charged issue, so a lot of the efforts I’m hearing is acknowledging and supporting their fellow students in Parkland, and having a larger agenda focused on school safety, and not focusing on it as a gun control issue.”
But, even as they decide how to hold their protests amid this week’s snow, not all students agree that they should avoid gun control just because it’s a divisive issue.
Grace Capofreddi, 17, said she told administrators at her school, Concord-Carlisle High School, that she plans to deliver a speech at her walkout that calls on Congress to ban assault weapons, raise the legal age for gun sales to 21, and adopt more comprehensive background checks.
“I made it clear this is an inherently political subject, so they don’t have to agree with what I’m doing,” she said. “But we can’t change what the greater morals of the movement are, just because they want us to, just because they don’t want to get criticism from parents.”
Some students are rescheduling their protests because of school closures due to Tuesday’s blizzard while others are moving their walkouts indoors. Students at Littleton High School, for example, will gather in the auditorium. Some students, like those from Andover High School, are planning to head to the State House on Wednesday morning to lobby for two gun bills. Another group of students from Boston, Springfield, and Holyoke is planning to rally at the offices of Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer.
Capofreddi said the shooting in Parkland felt personal. Stoneman Douglas, like Concord-Carlisle, is a well-to-do suburban high school. And like the students in Parkland, she grew up in an era in which mass shootings and active shooter drills have become commonplace.
“One of my first memories of elementary school is being under the desk in the dark,” Capofreddi said. “Now that I’m older, I realize we can make a change. We don’t have to grow up in the dark, in lockdown drills. It’s something that’s avoidable, and that’s what makes me so passionate about this. Kids don’t have to grow up in fear.”
Nationwide, organizers say, nearly 3,000 walkouts are planned, from Maine to Hawaii. The walkouts have been organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women’s March. The group has urged students to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting.
Daniel Bryan, a 16-year-old junior at Boston Latin School, said the walkouts have galvanized students who are angry and frustrated at Congress’s failure to address gun violence, despite shooting after shooting.
“This issue, more than anything, just [angers] teenagers,” said Bryan, who is among those planning to lobby at the State House on Wednesday. “It’s harder to relate to things like health care and tax reform. I feel like the effects of gun control are much more clear and vivid to high school students.”
Scott said the walkouts may be the largest youth protests since the Vietnam War.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what the best way is to respect the voice of the student without forgoing some management and control of the school day,” he said.
Some schools are trying to set ground rules.
King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, for example, has banned backpacks, signs, and cellphones at its walkout and has told students to return to class by 10:37 a.m. Students who violate the rules may face disciplinary action, administrators wrote in an e-mail to parents.
“First and foremost in all of our decisions is the safety of all of our students,” the e-mail said. “Thus we would like to emphasize that we are not promoting the student walkout.”
Milton High School is making plans to accommodate a student walkout while emphasizing that the administration does not necessarily support the students’ views.
“It is important to mention that any planned response is NOT intended to advocate for a political party or policy position,” Milton High’s principal, James F. Jette, wrote in an e-mail to parents. “It is NOT our role to polarize or promote our own political views. The only explicit action should be about supporting democratic participatory processes available to all.”
Concord-Carlisle’s principal, Michael J. Mastrullo, is planning for his students’ walkout, though “Concord-Carlisle High School is neither sanctioning nor endorsing the event.” He noted that he had received several e-mails from community members “representing all sides of this issue.”
Students must “exercise their constitutional rights with proper decorum and respect,” Mastrullo wrote in a blog post about the walkout. “Students are not to be pressured to participate, and those attending are not to be derided for doing so.”
Aidan Murphy, a 16-year-old junior who is helping to organize the walkout at Quincy High School, said that while he personally supports tougher gun laws, he agrees with administrators who don’t want to make gun control a flash point during the walkouts.
“There are many solutions to this issue, and we welcome all voices,” Murphy said. “We don’t want to limit our audience. We don’t want to limit the amount of people who are invited to these walkouts.”
But Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said administrators should not ask students to avoid gun control or any other controversial topic at the walkouts. Teachers, too, should feel free to participate, she said.
“That’s what it means to participate in our community as a citizen,” Madeloni said. “Why would we silence their interest in engaging in a critical issue?”