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On walkout day, Connecticut students call for action on gun violence

Norwich Free Academy students filtered outside at 10 a.m. Wednesday, some chanting "Not one more!" as they traversed the plowed sidewalks of the campus.

Some held photos of the students and faculty killed in the Parkland, Fla., shooting, while others held signs reading, "Arms are for Hugging" and "End School Violence Now."

"We were born into a world reshaped by the Columbine High School shooting of 1999," NFA Senior Class President Brielle Jewell said, addressing her classmates. She continued on, "We discuss the possible threats to our school and safe steps that are necessary to provide a secure school environment for all of us. We express our concerns to those trusted adults when something seems off. And we have had enough."

Following the demonstration, student organizers gathered in the library to discuss next steps, such as writing letters to lawmakers and inviting political leaders to the school to discuss ideas for curbing gun violence.

NFA was one of many high schools in the area to participate in the national school walkout on March 14, which marked one month since a shooter opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 14 students and three staff members.

The district high schools in New London, East Lyme, Ledyard, Montville, Stonington and Groton each participated in a sanctioned walkout — or a gymnasium "walk-in" — as a show of solidarity and a call to action. Events also were scheduled for Lyme-Old Lyme High School and Waterford High School.

Tension in New London

A student-run and school-sanctioned event held in the gymnasium at New London High began with student speeches and the release of 17 red, heart-shaped balloons to honor the victims in the Parkland shooting.

The event turned a bit chaotic when a student member of the local group Hearing Youth Voices noted the presence of police officers in the hallway and told the hundreds of students gathered, "If you want to walk out, walk the (expletive) out."

Most of the students headed for the doors — past school officials and several police officers — to gather outside. The gathering ended peacefully — after a brief snowball fight.

Tessa Rock, a senior and member of the Student Council, said the purpose of the event was to draw attention to gun violence, push for stricter gun laws and to show "the kids of my generation have a voice."

Rock and other members of the Student Council said they had incorporated their ideas with members of Hearing Youth Voices but were frustrated by the group's attempt to co-opt the event.

Prior to the event, youth leaders from Hearing Youth Voices issued a public statement about the walkout, calling the idea of arming teachers the "worst idea ever," and calling for better diversity in the teaching staff, mental health services, restorative justice, police out of the schools and a "systematic and global end to white supremacy."

High school students were not the only ones to participate in the walkout on Wednesday. About 10 a.m., kindergartners were led outside by their teachers at Harbor Elementary School, something that interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy said “should not have happened.”

Tracy said that the principal, Jason Foster, was not informed of the walkout ahead of time and parents of the students were never asked permission. He said he has had a conversation with the school staff about the incident. He declined to discuss whether the teachers were disciplined.

Walkout with a message

Hundreds of students gathered outside East Lyme High School during a student-led event designed as an optional, nonpolitical event to show support for the victims of the Parkland shooting. A group of students and staff members read one by one the biographies of the 17 victims and held up their photos, and attendees observed 17 seconds of silence for each victim.

Nahisha Jackson, a junior, said the victims deserve change and reform, and she invited classmates who want to continue the conversation to future student-focused discussions.

"I know that this conversation may not make people comfortable, but that's OK," she said, "because being uncomfortable has always been the start of a change, because the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas should be mourning instead of staying up researching gun violence and gun control policies in this country."

Samantha King, a senior involved in the East Lyme event, said after the event that it's important to not let the moment pass and have it be regarded as yet another mass tragedy that has happened, but to instead raise awareness and make change.

Molly Dewey, a junior involved in the event, said she was happy so many people with varying political beliefs showed up to the event that created a space where students were the leaders. She thinks her generation's voices are important in making change on the issue of gun violence and safety in schools.

At Montville High School, more than 50 students gathered outside the front of the school, many holding signs declaring, "Enough is enough."

Seniors Joshua Archibald and Ryan Radgowski urged the boisterous crowd to speak out against school violence.

"Imagine missing a week of school just to go to your friends' funerals," Radgowski said. "The question is, 'When is enough, enough?' How many lives is it going to take before there's change?"

Radgowski said she wasn't pushing for "all guns being taken away and banned" but for stronger background checks and restrictions on assault weapons.

"Don't ever say your voice doesn't matter," said Archibald, student government president. "If you want change, you can get it. One walkout will not inspire change. This needs to be something that continues."

Just 18 minutes into a two-hour delay at Ledyard High School, hundreds of students walked out, many wearing shirts and hunting jackets in hues of orange, the color associated with the movement to end gun violence. And many carried signs reading, "Am I next? Enough is enough."

Joining the LHS students who orchestrated the event were faculty members and elected officials, including Mayor Fred Allyn III; state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; and members of the Town Council and Board of Education.

In addition to a moment of silence to honor students who lost their lives in school shootings, six students spoke about concerns around semi-automatic weapons.

"Students have the right to feel safe at a place where they go to learn and they shouldn't have to focus on whether they are going to get hurt, but on their schoolwork instead," junior Mikayla Fors said. "I don't care if you classify as a Democrat or Republican, independent, none of that matters. Today, we stand together as one community that has finally decided enough is enough."

Some opt for 'walk-in'

In both Stonington and Groton, hundreds of students gathered in their respective high school gyms while 17 students read short biographies of the students and staff members killed in Parkland, with a chime after each one.

"School safety should be a right, not something we have to ask for," Stonington High School senior Trinity Lennon said.

Hannah Lamb, a junior who helped organize the event, said the gathering was the best way to honor the victims while keeping the event open to everyone. She said that after the Parkland shooting, there was an outcry from students to do something.

Students announced that the school will now be using the "Say Something" app, allowing students to anonymously report people who show signs of potential violent behavior.

Principal Mark Friese allowed the students to create their own assembly and said, "From day one, I would support what they wanted to do. We have a group of kids here who are very passionate, caring and intellectual."

Those who did not want to participate had a short study hall in the nearby commons area.

At Fitch High School in Groton, members of Principal Joseph Arcarese's newly revived Principal's Advisory Committee also planned a "walk-in" in the gym rather than a walkout.

The decision was made partly for student safety, and event emcee Lily Johnson, a senior, explained that the purpose of the event was to talk about feelings, learn about those here to help and make change.

Junior Yanessa Mercado spoke about her fear of coming to school: "I have friends who get scared when the intercom comes on in the middle of the day, thinking that Mr. Arcarese is going to say the words, 'This is not a drill.'"

Junior Dan Gaiewski spoke about his recent research into gun laws in various states, School Resource Officer Scott Bousquet challenged students to reach out to peers who are alone or having a rough time, and town Registrar of Voters Paul Duarte urged 18-year-olds to vote. At a table set up in the cafeteria during lunch, Duarte and the League of Women Voters got 77 students registered to vote.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Greg Smith, Kimberly Drelich, Benjamin Kail, Charles Clark, Joe Wojtas and Erica Moser contributed to this report.


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