Students plan peaceful but passionate walkouts for Wednesday
The Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, school shooting has stirred up a conversation in Oregon that students say isn’t going away.
“This is our safety; it’s important,” said Sydney Wilkins, an eighth-grader at Sisters Middle School. “We won’t back down this time.”
All over the country, from elementary schools to colleges, students plan to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland tragedy by leaving their classrooms at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14, for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim. The “Enough: National School Walkout” has been loosely organized through Women’s March, a political movement committed to grass-roots activism. The group has created a world map of declared walkout sites.
Wilkins has been using social media and talking to students to organize a peaceful and respectful walkout at her school. She wants her school and other students to be more civically active.
“We’re tired of being quiet and these school shootings happening and nothing being done at a higher level,” she said. “We need action.”
OSBA has answered some frequently asked questions about student protests. Among the recommendations are that staff members should not participate while on work time. Schools should treat the walkouts like any other unexcused absence. Property and Casualty Coverage for Education, Oregon's leading insurance pool for education, has also provided resources related to student protests. A login is required.
Many schools have already met with students to ensure activities will be safe and within the boundaries of students’ First Amendment rights. Schools have worked with law enforcement agencies for extra patrols and created plans for students who choose not to participate or to voice opposition. Many school board members, administrators and teachers have been quietly supportive of the walkouts, though, saying they encourage critical thinking, assertiveness and engagement.
“It’s a good exercise in civics,” said North Wasco County School Board Chair Kathy Ursprung. Parents have raised safety issues at a recent school board meeting, and a walkout is expected at The Dalles High School in North Wasco.
Districts have also been trying to give students other constructive outlets, such as letter-writing campaigns or class research projects on safety topics.
South Medford High School students have been among the most active in Oregon. Some students walked out Feb. 21 and again on March 2, when more than 100 students from Medford’s three high schools marched to the Medford offices of Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden. The students are also planning a regional gathering in Medford for the national March 24 “March for Our Lives.”
But South Medford student leaders decided against an organized walkout for Wednesday. Part of that is because of their recent walkouts and their focus on March 24, said Emma Empol, a senior at South Medford. But partly it is because the district has given students avenues to voice their concerns outside school hours.
South Medford High School is holding a student forum Tuesday for students to meet with staff and administrators and discuss their concerns. The district is also holding a school safety public forum Friday, March 16, for parents and community members.
“We’ll show up and we will keep our voices loud,” Empol said.
Student leaders around the state talk about having their voices heard, but the exact message of the walkouts has been harder to discern, other than a general feeling of a need for action. Students want to honor the Parkland victims and show support for the survivors, and they want to raise safety concerns.
Seventh-grader Leilani Witherspoon is helping organize a walkout at Stephens Middle School in Salem. She says people should stop blaming mental disorders and maybe make it harder for people with problems to get a gun. She says it’s hard to feel safe in her school after Parkland.
“If a school in a good area can be shot up, then no school is safe,” she said.
Opposition to the walkouts has mostly been about a perceived gun-control stance. Student walkout leaders say they have faced some tough, and even threatening, conversations over the issue.
Wilkins, the Sisters middle schooler, stressed that her school’s walkout is not meant to be political and that “safety” doesn’t mean “anti-gun.”
“I don’t think guns are necessarily bad,” said Wilkins, who is the daughter of a veteran and wants to be an Army Ranger. “I just think the rules need to be stricter. … If a child on the playground hits someone with a stick, you don’t give the other kids a stick.”
The walkouts could take many forms, anywhere from students simply going into the hallways or a nearby room to marching outside with posters and speeches. Some will have a simple 17 minutes of silence while others may have follow-up activities. Student leaders are stressing that the walkouts need to be respectful, and school administrators say there will be consequences for disruptive behavior such as yelling slogans in class or banging on doors to get other students to join.
Some parent and community criticism has focused on the lost class time. Nathan Maryanov, an eighth-grader at Judson Middle School in Salem, says he sees this as a one-time event that is a valuable use of student time.
“It’s a great way to teach younger students about free speech and give the older students an issue to get passionate about,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA