On the one-month anniversary of the Florida high school massacre that inspired American teens to become more politically active, the National School Walkout transpired in various ways Wednesday across the Columbus area.
The Muscogee County School District, which last week warned students would face disciplinary action if they walked out, conducted an alternative activity instead: a video conference with state legislators. Officials at Harris County, Central and Pacelli high schools collaborated with students to plan supervised participation in this historic event.
Shortly after 10 a.m. two girls walked out of the front door of Columbus High School and down the steps to Cherokee Avenue.
“My parents have always told me to be the change,” Sakeli Givens said of why she was protesting gun violence.
A fellow senior Sarah Brooks agreed.
“This is not a protest against the county or school but against gun violence,” Sarah said.
MCSD’s “Speak Up! Sit in” event was the district’s alternative to the walkout. From 9 a.m. to 9:45 a.m., a total of 247 classrooms in each middle school and high school watched the video conference between the local legislation delegation and student leaders. But the Columbus High girls who walked out weren’t satisfied with that alternative.
“It did not meet my needs, did not satisfy my right to protest,” Sarah said.
“I am taking advantage of the liberty and freedom I have,” Sakeli said.
The girls said they knew there could be consequences for their actions but were not concerned.
“Schools should be safe,” Givens said.
She said she was protesting to honor the 17 victims and “make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
She is concerned about safety at Columbus High School.
“There are so many access points,” she said.
Legislators question students
During the video conference, some legislators had questions for the students. State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, asked what would make them feel safer at school.
A boy said polices that already have been implemented too often aren’t followed, although he didn’t specify those policies. “The problem that we face is actually keeping those consistent so we can really be safe at our schools,” he said.
“School officials are listening there, and of course we are listening here,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus.
State Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, asked the students whether they visit with school counselors more than once a year to make their schedule and to actually talk about their problems.
A boy said that students indeed have counselors available when they need them, and he praised the program called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Suppors), which focuses on rewarding good behavior.
A girl, however, noted a fellow student who “wanted to hurt themselves” went to a school counselor once but “never had to go back to the counselor.”
A female Hardaway student complained about the “nine entrances” that remain open at her school. State Rep. John Pezold, R-Columbus, who graduated from Hardaway, replied, “If you were to maintain access to all those doors, you would have to man those doors with personnel or security systems, and just from a logistical standpoint, you would have to just stop access at 70-80 percent of those doors. So I’m tracking you on the access part.”
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said officials must make schools “a harder target.” He told about visiting his mother-in-law at the Georgia school where she works, and he had “free rein” to go through the front door and anywhere in that school without being stopped.
“We’ve got to change that,” McKoon said.
Hugley told the students, “What you all are doing this morning helps us to get around some of the hindrances we have. Part of the problem is that people are speaking at one another on this issue, as opposed to speaking to one another.”
Stakeholders must “listen and hear from people of different opinions and to work together to find a solution that’s right for Georgia,” Hugley said.
Smyre asked the students, “How can we engage you all? How can we have more listening sessions?”
A girl replied, “As long as you create it and make sure the event happens, we’ll come. We want our opinions to be heard.”
Smyre responded, “We’ll take you up on that.”
Superintendent David Lewis thanked the legislators, students and event organizers. After the video conference, students and teachers were allowed to write letters to the massacre’s survivors.
“We all hope and pray that this will be the last time we have to have a conversation around this particular issue,” Lewis said.
After the conference, two of the student delegates spoke with the Ledger-Enquirer. Spencer High School freshman Hezekiah Moore and Northside High School senior Peyton Nobles said they wanted permission to participate in the walkout, but they appreciated the opportunity to discuss school safety with the people empowered to improve it.
“Walking out just makes a statement,” said Peyton, 17. “This was more talking, trying to get things done, sharing ideas and having conversation about it.”
Hezekiah, 15, said, “Getting our message out to the legislators and having them discuss it is just a good experience overall.”
The message, he said, is that “nothing like what happened in Florida should never happen.”
To help prevent such a tragedy, Hezekiah would like to see more security officers in schools more often, as well as metal detectors.
Peyton welcomes the idea of requiring school entrances to be accessed via swipe cards, which is the system she will use next school year at Mercer University.
“Northside is very open access,” Peyton said. “There are points all over the school where you can get in and out. Building schools from this point forward, they need to be more closed in.”
The walkout that was planned at Harris County High School turned into an inside ceremony. Princpal Todd Stanfill wouldn’t explain in detail the reason he couldn’t allow media to cover the event anymore, but he in a text message to the Ledger-Enquirer he cited “the cold weather and some other reasons.”
Pacelli officials also had welcomed coverage of its prayer vigil but changed their mind because students wanted it to be private.
The students at Central High School elected to not leave the school’s premises. They did, however, take the moment to educate as well as honor those directly affected by school shootings.
The Central students separated by grade level Tuesday morning as their grade’s class officers spoke about what the day meant. For the Central seniors, it was a chance to listen as their classmates memorialized the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and discussed how to prevent something similar at their school.
“We did walk out -- We just didn’t walk outside of the school,” said Paisley Flagg, the senior class secretary. “We walked out of our classes and into designated areas where we could have a more unified approach. This way, the message can be broadcasted outside the school. I feel like everybody had a better chance of hearing everything we said. It was more personal doing it this way.”
Flagg was one of the senior class’ four officers to speak at the presentation. She stressed how school shootings like the one that occurred one month ago could happen anywhere at anytime.
“Just think if it was your brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, significant other or whoever you care for at that high school who was shot down and killed,” Flagg told the senior class. “They left for work or school that morning and didn’t come home to you. How would you feel?”
The senior officers lit 17 candles in honor of each life lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School while class president Mariah Green read the poem “Safe Space,” in which the narrator learns his or her roommate has a gun and alerts the authorities. They showed a video titled “Evan,” which demonstrated how students at a fictitious high school overlooked the signs of a potential shooter.
Just think if it was your brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, significant other or whoever you care for at that high school who was shot down and killed. They left for work or school that morning and didn’t come home to you. How would you feel?
Paisley Flagg, Central High School
The audience also listened to the Central choir sing “The Separation,” a original song that included the line, “Do our differences even matter when the world is shattered/We should just love, love, love.”
As important as looking back on those lost was, being proactive was just as prominent a message. Green said she hoped the class took away the lesson that telling a person of authority about someone with a gun should not be negatively characterized as snitching.
“They should let administration know if something like that is going to happen at our school,” Green said. “They shouldn’t be afraid to tell them if it’s going to happen and let them know it’s not OK and this is not how it should be.”
Class vice president Garrett Norris stressed to the crowd how the discussion was not a political debate. Norris said he was in a middle school classroom the day after the shooting, which gave him a perspective that helped form his message.
“I just want them to think about things,” Norris said. “Because this happens at the scale it does, I think people are desensitized by it. I think it’s important they think about this and that it’s happening frequently. I hope somebody watched this and decided a change needs to be made.”
The four seniors said the administration was receptive to their ideas for how they would organize their messages Tuesday and even came to them with their own ideas for the day. Principal Tommy Vickers said it was a teachable moment for everyone involved, and that doing nothing would be passing up a teachable moment.
The Central students opted to not walk out Tuesday, but ultimately they felt their strategy was more effective than stepping out of the school could have ever been.
“I think if we would have walked out of the school, I think a lot of people would have taken it as, ‘Party time. We’re out of school,’” senior class treasurer Carson Logan said. “I think by bringing it into an auditorium where they’re contained, they would see we’re trying to be serious and they really need to listen to this matter.
“It’s not about politics anymore. This about human beings standing up for each other and not letting another person or thing defile them or hurt them.”