Brattleboro Union High School students demand change
BRATTLEBORO — Students received cheers as soon as they stepped outside the high school Wednesday to stand in solidarity with the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and call for stricter gun laws.
"We are all here today because we are demanding change," Lucia Morey, one of the three students who led the walkout at Brattleboro Union High School, told a crowd gathered at the entrance. "We do not feel safe inside our schools. This is why we are walking out today. We want to be clear about how serious we are about the change we demand. Children are dying."
Protests planned as part of #ENOUGH National School Walkout in about 3,000 schools throughout the United States lasted 17 minutes in honor of the 17 victims killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. The student-led initiative in support of the #NeverAgain movement organized by students in Parkland looking for "common sense gun laws" welcomed community members to participate.
Local residents stood with signs with messages such as: "Standing with love," "Listen to students," "Enough is enough," "We [heart symbol] you" and "Kids not guns." Other signs targeted the National Rifle Association, the lobbying force blamed for many gun-control laws never seeing the light of day: "Walkout rules. NRA drools," "NRA = Death."
Morey said students are calling on lawmakers to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and expand background checks on all gun sales. Politicians backed by the NRA, she added, "want you to forget the 427 mass shootings in 2017 alone."
Molly Durling, another organizer of the walkout at BUHS, encouraged attendees to tell their state legislators to vote for bills to prohibit bump stocks used to simulate the speed of automatic weapons, expand background checks, and give law enforcement more authority to seize weapons and explosives from those convicted of domestic assault or deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.
"No child should fear that someone is going to take their lives or their friends' lives in a classroom," Durling said. "There will be a voter registration at all of the lunches. I encourage you to register because we need to plan our future, not let some corporate politicians take it from us."
Cassandra Dunn, who also organized the BUHS walkout, said the national dialogue about gun violence needs to change.
"We cannot keep sending thoughts and prayers as children are dying," she told attendees. "We need action."
Dunn said statistics show that less than 5 percent of gun deaths are carried out by people diagnosed with a mental illness.
"Saying this is a mental health problem is incredibly alienating to the one-in-five people in America who have a mental illness," she said. "We're using 'mentally ill' and 'morally evil' as synonyms and we need to stop. We need the conversation to be about what is causing these deaths: Guns."
Dunn said America has 101 guns for every 100 people — an estimate supported by GunPolicy.org — and there have been 62 mass shootings in the country this year. She called gun violence "unacceptable."
The student organizers' talks were purposefully aimed at the adults standing on the road and the sidewalk.
"Let the people in the back row come forward, all the students spread out this way and this way," Morey told students. "We want to make our presence known to these folks right here."
Local activist Kurt Daims handed Morey a megaphone so the audience could hear her better. Later, she and others used a microphone plugged into an amplifier run from local business owner Erin Scaggs' car.
"Who's got the power? Power to the youth," Morey said with attendees interacting. "When I say, 'Who's blood?' You say, 'Our blood.'"
Call-and-response chants continued with the crowd saying: "When is the time to talk about guns? Now is the time to talk about guns. Will we be silenced? No, we won't be silenced."
The walkout concluded with the high school's a cappella group singing a song written by Parkland students in response to the tragedy.
"Thank you," adult attendees chanted. "Thank you."
BUHS Principal Steve Perrin counted about 250 students participating. He has seen students walk out of classes before. There was President Donald Trump's pick of Betsy DeVos as education secretary last year and the Gulf War about 10 years ago.
"I think the students did a great job," Perrin told the Reformer. "I think they were really respectful."
He was pleased to hear the organizers talk about concrete actions they could take to effect change. That had been part of talks when students planned the walkout with the administration.
"I was excited to see the community come and see adults pay attention to students," Perrin said. "And to be honest, I hope the people in Montpelier and D.C. are listening because I agree with what the students are saying in terms of being safe."
Perrin feels his school is safe and considers the school resource officer, a law enforcement officer on grounds every day who can interact with the kids, a good security measure. He does not believe teachers should be armed.
Perrin did not comment on whether students would be reprimanded for walking out of classes.
"Anything we do will be between the administration and the student," he said.
Amya Barash, a freshman, told the Reformer she was "really proud" to participate and try to bring about change.
Greg Crespo, a junior, saw the walkout as a way to shape the future.
"I believe that given the history of our country, it would be only appropriate to start acting," he told the Reformer. "I really appreciate what they're doing. If no speaks out or we speak out independently, no one will hear us."
Morey had asked participants to come only if they felt very strongly about the issue.
"I specifically asked them not to do it if it was only because other people were doing it," she told the Reformer. "But they showed up, and they showed up in numbers and I'm really happy about that."
The dynamic of the walkout caught her mother Luz Elena Morey by surprise. She did not think the students would be facing the adults.
"It's tweaking my head a bit," she said. "I think that as empowered as they feel, to think that this message is for us, it really is intense."
Supriya Shanti agreed.
"It was very powerful," she said.
Brattleboro Select Board Vice Chairwoman Brandie Starr called the walkout "amazing."
"You know, it's complicated for me because I'm a native Central Vermonter so I've seen guns my whole life," she told the Reformer. "But on the other hand, clearly we can't be trusted. People can't be trusted. And sometimes when people can't be trusted and children are dying, you know, we're going to have to make changes. If we don't make changes, what does that say about us as grownups?"
She added, "These kids are going to change the world."
Students had met with Town Manager Peter Elwell to secure a permit to close the road in front of the school. Perrin said he asked the law enforcement officers from the Brattleboro Police Department and the Windham County Sheriff's Office to attend.
While she could not take an official position on the walkout, Superintendent Lyle Holiday said she supports "the students' need to take the lead on this."
"It's a really good thing for students to have a voice and be able to act on it," she said, noting that they have been organizing the effort since their February break.
Holiday said she is "absolutely" concerned about safety at schools. Organizers planned similar shows of solidarity for Parkland victims at Windham Southeast Supervisory Union schools including Academy School, Brattleboro Area Middle School, Oak Grove School and Dummerston Elementary School.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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