Students in Harris County will be allowed to participate in the National School Walkout – led by the valedictorian who knows one of the victims and three of the survivors of the Florida school shooting that sparked this protest calling for better gun control.
Shir-li Oved, 18, was in her Advanced Placement calculus class Feb. 14 when her phone was deluged with frantic group messages from some of her camp friends. They were hiding in a closet at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., while a shooter was devastating their school.
“I was about to break down in tears in the middle of class,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer. “It scared me so bad. … I didn’t know what to do. There’s not much you can do. I don’t think I comprehended anything else we did in school that day until they told me they were safe.”
That took several hours.
“It was very stressful to not know,” she said.
A week later, she saw one of those friends speak to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch during the town hall discussion televised on CNN. She also learned about more of those friends going to the state capitol to lobby legislators about gun control. That inspired her to find a way to be active in this issue as well.
When she got word about the National School Walkout being planned for Wednesday, she immediately wanted to participate but she also worried protesting would risk her hard-earned status as valedictorian. After all, she never has been in trouble at school.
Shir-li decided to seek both objectives by meeting with principal Todd Stanfill and ask him to let the students participate in the walkout. Still, she was willing to go against the administration if she didn’t receive permission.
“I came to the conclusion that my friends’ lives are much more valuable to me than valedictorian,” she said. “If the school wanted to take away that honor, punishing me for standing up for what I believe in, then they could do that, but I much rather protest against inaction than be valedictorian of a school that would not let me.”
But she doesn’t have to take that risk. Stanfill has cooperated with the request from Shir-li and sophomore Nora Klein.
“He was very onboard with it,” Shir-li said. “I really do appreciate them allowing this to happen safely.”
Stanfill, in a phone interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, explained the administration’s rationale.
“We want our kids to learn about things and understand things outside of Harris County and have an appreciation for it, and we want them to learn how to do things in the right way. … We try really hard to build relationships with our students, and they trust we will allow them to express their feelings in the right way.”
Nora and Shir-li made flyers and posters promoting the walkout and encouraging students to wear orange that day to show support for the cause.
Harris County students will be allowed to leave the building and gather in front of the school for a 17-minute ceremony honoring the 17 people who died in the massacre. The event will be supervised by school staff.
Stanfill was MCSD’s athletics director for two years before Harris County hired him in December 2015, so he understands the different dynamics in Columbus, which has nine public high schools.
“Our situation is a bit simpler than what might be in other school districts because we have just one high school,” he said. “We’re also, where we’re located, logistically able to do this (walkout) because we have room in front of the school. … What works for one school district may not for another.”
Harris County School District chief information officer Jeff Branham told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email, “We believe strongly in students’ First Amendment rights and will give them an opportunity to express grief for fellow students and teachers in an organized, orderly and supervised fashion. This is an optional activity for students who wish to participate. Harris County Carver Middle School and Creekside Middle School will follow the same procedure.”
The massacre in Florida shook her sense of safety at her school, Shir-li said, but that feeling has dissipated.
“We do have sheriff’s (deputies) in the school all the time,” she said. “I don’t feel afraid to come to school.”
‘Speak up! Sit In’
Last week, the Muscogee County School District announced students would face disciplinary action if they participate in the National School Walkout. MCSD has planned an alternative activity instead.
MCSD’s “Speak up! Sit In” event will be a video conference featuring students representing each middle and high school along with state legislators representing the Columbus area.
The National School Walkout is scheduled for March 14 at 10 a.m. in every American time zone. From 9 to 9:45 a.m., MCSD will conduct its alternative activity in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. The session will be streamed live through a secure channel to each middle and high school classroom in the district. The public will be able to view the session on the MCSD’s Facebook page.
After the video conference, MCSD middle and high school students and teachers will be allowed to write letters of support to those affected by the Florida school shooting. The letters will be collected and forwarded to Stoneman Douglas.
“This session is the only district-approved exercise that will take place regarding any of the proposed walkouts surfacing in the news,” MCSD says in the news release. “Unapproved exercises will be considered a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. Students who participate in unapproved exercises will face immediate disciplinary action.”
MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham told the Ledger-Enquirer, “The punishment would be determined by the school administrators, if that should arise.”
The Ledger-Enquirer interviewed five MCSD high school students last week to find out what they think of the controversy. None of them said they felt unsafe at school, and only one was aware of the pending national walkout.
Columbus High sophomore Emily Lynch, 15, said she supports the protest but was waiting to find out if the administration would let students participate.
“I think it’s important,” she said. “It’s a big deal nowadays. It’s so real. It could literally happen here.”
Carver High School sophomore Erique Matthews, 16, doesn’t think the walkout is a good idea.
“We’re at school to get our education,” he said. “We shouldn’t be worried about anybody except ourselves and our future.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but there’s a different way to go about things, instead of taking matters into your own hands. You shouldn’t just walk out of class; you should sign petitions and stuff like that. Go to somebody who would really hit it hard, like the governor.”
Kendrick High School senior Akira Jakes, 19, has mixed feelings about the walkout.
“They might actually get their opinion out,” she said, “but I don’t think it would accomplish much.”
The shooting in Florida hasn’t made her fearful at her school, Akira said, “but it surprised me because it was Florida. I never thought anybody would do anything like there. Florida is like a place where you really just go to get away from stuff like that.”
The Phenix City Schools administration has been working with students to create “an opportunity for students to exercise their right to free speech,” superintendent Randy Wilkes told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email.
That plan’s details weren’t available Monday, but Wilkes said components being considered include:
▪ A designated area for each grade level to assemble;
▪ A moment of silence for lives lost in Parkland;
▪ The importance of relationships;
▪ How to manage personal issues and available resources to do so;
▪ How to report those who are demonstrating suspicious behavior; and
▪ The consequences of spoken or written threats.
As of Monday, the Troup County School System hasn’t released information about how it is handling the situation. Yolanda Stephen, the system’s public relations director, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email that the “district and school leadership staff are in discussions about the steps we may need to take to ensure safe school operations in the event we have students who choose to participate.”
The walkout isn’t an issue in Chattahoochee County, where students will have the day off while teachers are in professional development. “If we were in school that day,” superintendent David McCurry told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email, “the school system would certainly be respectful of those students that wished to participate.”
The superintendents in Russell and Lee counties didn’t respond to the Ledger-Enquirer’s query.