ELYRIA — As hundreds of high school students across the country walked out of their schools Friday to bring attention to gun violence, Eastern Heights Middle School students chose to stay inside and focus on a complementary message.
The organized national walkout to honor the 13 people killed in the Columbine High School shooting served as a backdrop for the message of kindness and inclusion the students wanted to share. Instead of leaving their classrooms, walking outside and holding signs in protest, the students gathered in the gymnasium to watch a video on rising above bullying and be encouraged to perform random acts of kindness.
“I think today’s assembly is important because we need to remember the victims of Columbine, especially on the anniversary,” said student organizer Jackie Kaminski, an eighth-grader. “I think the message we want to send is gun violence is not OK and we need to do something about it. Kids are dying.”
Kaminski, who was emotional throughout the hourlong assembly and sought comfort from friends as she stood at the microphone, said it is not lost on her that every year of her young life has been marked by at least one school shooting in the country.
“It’s just disappointing. It’s hard to go to school and not feel safe,” she said. “School is supposed to be an environment where people come to learn and make friends. Now people are scared because there is so much gun violence. It’s a barrier.”
The assembly was organized by two student groups, the Anti-Bullying Taskforce and Leadership Group, that want to make the message clear that stopping gun violence also is about making sure that students know they are not alone.
“This school is great, even to the point where they don’t let anyone sit alone,” said Michael Ferrer, student liaison with You Belong, a grant program of the Lorain County Board of Mental Health that is active in nine middle schools across the county. “These students are remarkable. The idea is to work now so what happened in Perry doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Ferrer was referring to Perry Schools in Massillon, where six current or former students committed suicide this school year.
“They are dealing with the symptom that leads to someone hurting themselves, others or committing suicide, whether that is isolation, loneliness or bullying,” he said.
The assembly — like all of the coordinating marches, rallies and walkouts — was held on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo. Eastern Heights’ students read aloud the names and stories of the 13 victims lost that day.
“We are fortunate to be here,” Jackie said. “… Imagine school is the only place you can feel safe and that is taken away from you?”
Many students openly wept and hugged.
“I know this is hard to hear. I teared up, too,” said Principal Kim Benetto.
Anti-Bullying Taskforce leader Heather Wervey, a history teacher at the school, said one-time events don’t build a school culture. That’s why each month the student group is working to make sure students understand change starts from the smallest place.
“I want them to know an act of kindness can change someone’s life,” she said.