By Jay Cook and Chris Rotolo |
RED BANK – Armed only with their First Amendment rights and carrying their personal pleas on signs, a significant number of students walked out of schools across the Two River area this week to play their part in a nationwide moment to honor lives lost to school shootings and to push for federal gun law reform.
The demonstrations came on National Walkout Day, a social media-driven initiative on March 14, aimed at remembering the 17 lives lost during a gunman’s rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on the one-month anniversary of that tragic event. The walkouts began at 10 a.m. and lasted 17 minutes to commemorate the lives lost.
One of the largest walkouts in the area happened at Red Bank Regional, where over 500 of the approximately 1,300 enrolled students left their classrooms and quietly marched to the football field behind the school.
Without speaking, teenagers from dif ferent grades walked around the track for 17 minutes as 16-year-old Claire Taylor used a megaphone to announce the names of the victims from the Parkland shooting. As each minute passed, she called out a different name and also read off personal anecdotes she gathered about the fallen. “It shouldn’t be looked at as a political stance. I really, truly believe that,” said Taylor, a junior from Ocean Township. “It’s a very heartfelt, close-to-home issue for us at RBR because it happens all over our nation and happens the most of any nation in the world. Guns are misused to target schools and target the killing of students. And we are students.”
Taylor was one of four female students who organized the RBR walkout with assistance from the school administration. Red Bank Regional Principal Risa Clay marched alongside her students.
“We can’t really take a stand politically on any issue, but we can offer kids a vehicle of self-expression and keep them safe,” Clay said. “That’s what we were able to do and I’m very happy about that.”
Lucie Chantepie walked out of her classes and carried a handmade sign reading, “Dissent is Patriotic.” The 16-year-old sophomore from Manasquan said the protests felt personal because “our lives are on the line.”
“We cannot take the example from our previous generations. We cannot follow in their footsteps,” she added, referencing how teenagers must stand up for gun reform. “We have to take charge if we care about this country. We can’t stand by and let somebody else do it.”
Catherine Creed, 15, of Highlands, recorded the entire march and plans to post it on YouTube and other social media sites. She believes that could have the biggest impact for her generation.
“It’s going to be there forever,” she said. “So when my children can look back, I can tell them I did this and here is the proof. We are all women here and we want change.”
At the same time just a few miles away, administrators at Shore Regional High School in West Long Branch provided their student body with two courses of action. They designated a safe, outdoor meeting area near the campus’ softball field for open opposition and protest of federal firearm regulations, as well as a quiet setting inside the gymnasium for students to come together for the 17- minute moment of silence to honor those whose lives were lost in the Parkland shooting.
About 200 students took part in the walkout and student organizer Ellie George, 18, was pleased with the administration’s plan to meet the needs of all the students, regardless of how they wished to demonstrate.
“I recognize that 17 minutes of silence is something that people do in memoriam and that can be really powerful. But I felt that taking action and trying to change the legislation that allowed the shooting in Florida to happen would be a really good use of the 17 minutes,” she said. “I felt that if we concentrated these 17 minutes on the topic of legislation and make the message and information easily accessible to our students, that it would be a really good use of these 17 minutes.”
Shore Regional Principal Vincent DalliCardillo said the administration was willing to respect his students’ wishes to assemble and make their voices heard, regardless of what their position may have been.
“We felt it was important to provide our students an opportunity to express themselves. We’ve recently held some assemblies about school violence, and the topic of this demonstration did come up,” he said. “I didn’t want to run from anything or make empty threats against our students. I felt it was important for them to be heard, and that goes for whatever their stance was.”
While addressing her peers outside, George and fellow organizers distributed contact information for U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), as well as Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), before making that information available in the school’s library for other interested students.
George also said she felt encouraged about Wednesday’s student participation and her hopes for future demonstrations on campus.
“I definitely think more strict gun control laws need to be put in place and for that to happen it really depends on students like us, and if we’re willing to reach out to our government leaders,” George said. “It was really cool to see that so many students were eager to help out and be part of this. The response was great and I think it will ensure that more political activism takes place at our school in the future.”
A little farther west in Monmouth County, students at Colts Neck High School took to the football field for their own rally.
It was organized by Megha Jain, a 17-year-old senior, who started a social media campaign to garner additional student awareness. Jain is a student in the law and public service program at Colts Neck and said she’s become much more politically active because of that.
But there’s a big difference, she said, between political response to school shootings and actually making federal gun reform changes.
“As lovely as ‘thoughts and prayers’ are, they do nothing to affect change,” she said. “They do nothing to stop this vicious cycle.”
Jain likened these rallies to the student protests in the late 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War.
“Protests have been a fundamental part of American history and how change happens,” she said. “It’s important for citizens to take on that civic responsibility and engage in what they believe in.”
Reports from around the area showed that students walked out of classes at schools like Rumson-Fair Haven Regional, Middletown North, High Technology High School in Lincroft, Ocean Township High School and Neptune High School, among others in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
More public displays, protests, marches and rallies are planned locally over the next six weeks to remember those Parkland victims and to try and influence law changes.
The Red Bank Board of Education will consider passing a resolution at its March 21 meeting, said Louis Moore, RBR’s superintendent. He said it will describe how safe schools can only be achieved through access to mental health services, school security and “responsible action on gun safety.”
A March For Our Lives rally is planned for March 24 in Red Bank where adults and students will walk about 1.5 miles through the borough and then convene at Riverside Gardens Park.
Day-long walkouts are planned across the state and country on April 20 for the 19th anniversar y of the Columbine School shooting in Colorado.
This article first appeared in the March 15-22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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