'Thoughts and prayers are not getting us anywhere': BUHS students organize March 14 walkout and protest

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BRATTLEBORO — Students at Brattleboro Union High School will have the opportunity to participate in a national walkout on March 14 as a call to Congress to "pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship."

The National School Walkout at 10 a.m. and will last 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parland, Fla., on Valentine's Day.

"BUHS students leaders have been working with Principal Steve Perrin to create a peaceful and safe way for students to be involved in the March 14 protest," stated Lyle Holiday, superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, in an email to the Reformer. "We need to work with students to understand that while civil disobedience is a right in the United States, there can be consequences for cutting class."

Molly Durling and fellow seniors Lucia Morey and Cassie Dunn are organizing the walkout. Durling told the Reformer the protest timing is meant to minimize disruption to the school's class schedule and they have been working with the Brattleboro Police Department to make sure it's safe for everyone.

"We are not doing this just to get out of class," said Durling. "It's really important for students, since these shootings have been happening at high schools, middle schools and elementary schools, that we send a message to Congress that we are not going to put up with your inaction."

Perrin had no comment to the Reformer on the planned protest, but Durling told the Reformer the organizers have been talking with him and their teachers about the walkout.

"Legally, he can't say he supports it, but he's very open and understands why we want to do this," said Durling. "He kind of expected we would want to do something."

Durling, Morey and Dunn have been circulating a petition at the school that reads, in part, "Government is failing us — Now is the time to talk about gun violence! School is for learning and for growth — there is no place for violence and fear on our campuses!"

The petition calls for "common sense firearms laws" to prevent gun violence, rather than an expectation that students should continue "to hide behind locked doors in fear for our lives."

The petition urges Vermont legislators to pass universal background checks and give police the authority to take firearms away from people who demonstrate "they are a risk to public safety" or from the scene of a domestic assault.

"Guns should not be the future of Vermont," states the petition. "We are the future of Vermont! Don't let Vermont be another tragic statistic."

Leland and Gray Union High School Principal Bob Thibault told the Reformer that he and other school administrators were planning to meet with their students to discuss their plans for March 14. Administrators from Bellows Falls Union High School did not respond to requests for information.

On Feb. 23, Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of the Vermont Department of Education, issued a memorandum to school administrators around the state.

"First and foremost, I support students' first amendment right to free speech, and I encourage students to engage in civil debate about critical issues that affect their wellbeing," wrote Holcombe. "Vermont has a strong tradition of student voice, and we celebrate our students for their efforts to engage in and positively shape the future of our state. And at a time like this, we need to hear our students' voices more than ever."

But, noted Holcombe, "the right to free speech does not extend to disrupting classes (which prevents others from learning), nor to leaving school without permission (which potentially creates a safety threat)."

Holcombe suggested school administrators facilitate "ways to respect and support your students' exercise of voice, while maintaining an orderly environment. For example, this might include working with student leaders for an assembly ... to observe 17 minutes of silence together to honor students in Parkland and to honor the right of students to attend schools free of fear."

Sophia Venturo, a senior at Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans, who is helping organize a walkout there on March 14, told VTDigger that Holcomb's safety concerns conveyed a failure to grasp what students like her are saying.

"They can't guarantee our safety inside the school, that's the whole problem," she said. "If a student disagrees that something needs to change, I don't think a 20 minute event outside the school is going to be a major disruption to their lives."

Durling agrees.

"It's really important that our generation is being heard," she said. "There is an enormous amount of political fever at this moment and it's an opportunity to get a lot of stuff accomplished."

She also discounted the criticism her generation has received from older people.

"Sure, we are young and we haven't been exposed to a lot of things," said Durling. "But we see the news and we do care about politics. Young minds have a different perspective of what's going on and if we all stick together, we can be more powerful. We have a lot of anger and a lot of emotion and a lot of energy. We are using that to our advantage."

Durling said she doesn't expect the walkout to be overly disruptive of classes, at least no more disruptive than an in-house 17-minute moment of silence.

"A few students are concerned about leaving class," she said. "To them I would say, 17 minutes isn't that much time. We don't think it's that big of a deal. But we are not pressuring anyone to walk out if they don't want to."

One thing Durling wants her fellow students and lawmakers to know is, "Thoughts and prayers are not getting us anywhere."

Durling said they have extended invitations to local legislators to attend the walkout, but she doesn't know who will be in attendance.

"We've also reached out to some of the teachers, but they have concerns about how they can participate," she said.

Durling also noted that their parents are entirely supportive of the efforts of the three seniors to organize the protest.

"All of our parents are really proud."

Holiday told the Reformer that local schools must also reinforce the notion that students have to work with administrators to make sure everyone is safe.

"We need to ensure that all students and parents take very seriously the 'If you see something, say something' phrase. It takes the full community working together to ensure the safest possible schools for our students."

At least two members of the Brattleboro Town School Board support the students' exercise of their First Amendment rights without suffering disciplinary repercussions.

"Students have the right to attend school and feel safe from the threat of gun violence," wrote David Schoales and Robin Morgan in an email to the Reformer. "Parents have the right to send their children to school and know that they will come home safely at the end of the day. Teachers have the right to come to work concerned with educating students, not worrying about protecting them from gunfire. Therefore we ask that school boards follow the example set at Dartmouth College and direct their administrators to not enforce disciplinary policies on any students participating in these peaceful civic activities."

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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