When shots rang out at a Florida high school in mid-February, the resulting carnage left 17 students and teachers dead and served as a catalyst that thrust many of the young survivors in that building into the role of student activists.
It is a wave that has spread throughout the entire country. And in Lorain County, where weeks ago students who were more concerned about proper prom attire than their protection, are now learning how to execute the proper way to protest for change — designing T-shirts, researching talking points, organization events, lining up speakers and garnering the support of their peers.
Friday’s March for Our Lives movement at Avon Lake High School is more than just an excuse to skip class or an opportunity to piggyback off tragedy, said Avon Lake High School senior Emily Higley.
“In the walkout, we are hoping to bring awareness to the issues in today’s world, like gun violence and mental health, and show that we want a change and we won’t stop until we get one,” Emily said. “We can’t stop the kids from coming just to get out of class, but we can only hope that people will be supportive and voice their thoughts with us as we demand a change.”
Set for 9:20 a.m., with a plan to meet outside the administrative offices, Emily along with fellow classmates Olivia Mercio and Ally Yellets have planned an event with the help of school officials that will include speeches and a moment of silence.
A similar event is set in Elyria for the one-month anniversary of the Florida shootings. At 10 a.m. March 14, Elyria High School students will gather in front of the Washington building.
“We need to speak up against gun violence considering it’s a threat to all of us.” said 15-year-old Ryan Streator, a sophomore who is helping to organize the March 14 walkout. (Follow the movement on Twitter @WalkoutEHS.)
“Our main concern is our safety is not where it should be in our schools and in our city,” added 18-year-old Alison Guerini, who said students worry more about the access outside people have to the building than other students in the building. She and others recounted stories of students from other schools sneaking into the building during lunch periods and attempting to blend in with Elyria High students.
While high school Principal Tim Brown said trespassing students were caught and now face discipline in their home schools, it brings to the forefront how students that bypass school rules and protocols jeopardize student safety.
“We have between 25 and 30 entrance and exit doors in this building and while they are all locked during the school day, there are still breakdowns that lead to breaches,” he said. “There is always more we can do, always opportunities to practice protocols and make sure everyone is following the rules.”
Brown, on Monday afternoon in a conference room near his office, looked around the room at the five students seated around a table. He noticed none of the students were wearing their required school lanyards and identification around their necks. Simply being able to identify who are Elyria students and who are not is key in an emergency, but it’s something that can fall by the wayside in a school of friends.
He told the students to find school IDs immediately. Most said they were stashed in their lockers.
This is a group of students — in total about 50 students have attended planning meetings in recent weeks — that came together after a less organized attempt forced Brown to ask some tough questions students could not answer.
Brown said he did not “shutdown” the students’ earlier efforts to walkout or threaten punishment for anyone who participated. Instead, he said he asked students about their plans — when they wanted to leave, where they were going once they left, what was going to happen once they got there and how long were they planning to be out. Add that uncertainly to the cold and rainy weather of the day and students elected to scrap impromptu plans spurred on by social media in exchange for the time to plan a purposeful protest for another day.
“This is just the start,” said Haley Simons, 17, the daughter of two Elyria Schools’ employees. “We want to see change and be that change because this is our future we are talking about.”
Elyria students are not alone in their concerns.
Lorain CEO David Hardy addressed the planned Lorain student walkout in a letter to the community in which he said he could not personally encourage students to participate.
“However, as the inspiring Parkland students have shown us with their words and actions, being engaged citizens with a voice is a valuable part of our young people’s learning and contributions as citizens,” he wrote. “I will always encourage students to use their voice meaningfully and participate in important civic conversations that affect our community and our nation’s schools.”
Hardy said in light of the shooting, the district is reviewing current lockdown measures and looking at the best safety plans in other districts to see if Lorain needs more.
Sunday’s school safety forum in Vermilion drew more than 200 people. The forum was the first step in the district’s reaction to the Florida mass shooting.
Much of the evening was devoted to breaking the audience into small groups to brainstorm ideas to improve safety and present the top ideas before the forum.
Many spoke of physical ideas such as reinforcing doors, installing bulletproof glass and more cameras; other ideas included adding more security officers and a school hotline to report suspicious threats, as well as increasing the number of counselors and providing more mental health therapy to students.
Elyria’s student leaders said all of those ideas are great. They also would like to see tougher gun laws, a hard sell that will need legislative action.
“That’s why we have come up with the motto ‘Protect the Pioneers, not guns,’” said Izzy Stewart, 16.
And the group said the walkout will not be a one-off event. Guerini, a senior, called it a preview of things to come. Future events will include a forum featuring mental health professionals, a callout to community members to get involved and a community assembly and forum.
Avon Lake’s Higly said the experience has taught her a lot.
“I have learned to never be afraid of voicing what you want done,” she said. “Nothing is going to change if we don’t demand for something to happen, in this case, we are advocating for gun control and mental health. We are just so tired of hearing about a horrific event, people sending thoughts and prayers, and then everyone forgetting about it two days later. We are not going to stop until something is done.”
This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: The March for Our Lives movement is at Avon Lake High School.
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