'Idealism is not ignorance': Williams School students walk out
New London — Most who attend high school today were not alive when, 19 years ago, two students laid siege on Columbine High School in Colorado, fatally shooting 13 people in a premeditated attack.
Yet the students in today’s high schools have grown up in a country where news of the latest school shooting spreads rapidly. In the case of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., graphic videos were shared widely, too.
On Friday, thousands of students — including many from the Williams School — called for change during the National School Walkout. It’s an event that originated in Connecticut and intentionally was hosted on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre.
It’s the third such event that has taken place since a gunman killed 17 people in the Parkland, Fla., shooting. The first was a March 14 walkout, in which students across the country spent 17 minutes honoring the lives of those who were killed in Parkland. The second was the March 24 March for Our Lives, during which hundreds of thousands of people marched in support of stricter gun legislation.
Lane Murdock, a Ridgefield High School student, called for Friday’s event in a change.org petition that has garnered more than 260,000 signatures. She told NPR this week she hoped Friday’s walkouts would begin at 10 a.m. and last the entire school day.
The Williams School event, however, was not an all-day affair. Organized by members of the school’s Political, Social Justice, Awareness Club, the event more closely resembled the March 14 walkout in that it was 17 minutes long and paid homage to those who died in Parkland.
“We thought it would be great having some distance from the initial shock of the shooting,” said Callum Tresnan, a Williams School senior who helped organize the walkout. “What we find a lot of the time is that the conversations peter out after the initial shock is gone. Having something a month or two months later on keeps the conversation going.”
When many area public schools participated in the March 14 walkout, Williams School students were on spring break. On Friday, however, while most other schools were on break, Williams School students were among the only ones in the region walking out.
Shortly after the event, Head of School Mark Fader said school officials supported the event because it was in keeping with the school’s mission, which is “to prepare students for college, a lifetime of learning and active participation in a changing society.”
Fader emphasized that students who didn’t want to participate didn’t have to. In a letter sent to the school community, Fader gave parents the option of refusing to allow their children to participate. He also asked Connecticut College security to be on hand.
“There are students who chose not to come out, and students who chose to come out,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that, either way, they were supported by the school.”
During Friday’s walkout, students in varying grade levels gave 17 short speeches on the field facing the school’s front entrance. They pointed out that Connecticut has among the strictest gun laws in the country. They said that, while the state can be an example for others, it shouldn’t take the deaths of 26 people in Newtown — 20 of whom were elementary school students — for change to happen. They cautioned their peers, bombarded with information, not to become desensitized to gun violence. They encouraged those who can register to vote to do so, and suggested everyone should encourage their family members and friends to do the same.
Acknowledging national discourse on whether high school students are qualified to comment on gun legislation, they shunned the idea that idealism is bad.
“Idealism is not ignorance,” one student said. “Idealism is the dream of a tomorrow where we have learned from the problems of the past with the intention of putting in the effort it takes to get there."
"Change is impossible,” she continued, “if you cross your arms, keep your head down and let yourself believe that nothing you can do will help.”
About half of the school walked out, Fader estimated. After the event, Tresnan and his three fellow organizers — Lili Kleinberg, Colin Kronholm and Asaada Craig — said they were impressed by how many students decided to participate.
“Parkland showed us that kids can make a difference,” Tresnan said, noting that Stoneman Douglas students quickly organized a rally and began scheduling media interviews after the shooting.
Although recent research from Northeastern University suggests school mass shootings are not increasing in frequency, administrators nationwide are nonetheless wondering how to improve safety. Among the ideas that have been thrown around of late are arming teachers with guns and increasing the number of police officers in schools.
“The No. 1 thing to keep in mind is that this shouldn’t be normalized,” Craig said of the shootings. “And the only way it’s not going to be normalized ... is to make sure the youth are part of it. The younger kids are going to be the ones who are up here speaking until it’s not an issue anymore.”
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