One month after a teenage gunman killed 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., thousands of high school students across the nation participated in a coordinated school walkout.
Students at Bluffton and May River high schools were among those speaking out March 14 with their concerns and fears about school safety and mental illness.
“It’s sad that things like this happen. Imagine if that was your family or someone you knew,” said May River High School freshman Ahmad Green, who spoke briefly during his school’s program. “You would be devastated.”
In partnership with their schools’ individual administrations, students created programs to memorialize the recent victims and formulate methods in which their concerns could be heard.
“Our goal has been to find ways for students to express their opinions and concerns in ways that don’t involve disrupting school or leaving campus,” said Bluffton High School principal Denise Garison. “We were able to meet with student leaders, listen to their voices and come up with a plan.”
Before the students demonstrated their convictions, the Beaufort County School District outlined the conditions under which they could act, primarily focusing on the need to keep students safe. That resulted in the sanctioned activities taking place within the confines of the schools.
“In terms of students who want to exercise their First Amendment rights beyond the avenues provided by their schools – more specifically, those students who choose to leave their school buildings at 10 a.m. – parents can sign them out the same as any other school day,” said Jim Foster, the district’s director of communications. “Students who cut class and leave school without parental permission could be disciplined in accordance with the Code of Conduct.”
He also noted that permitting students to leave the school at a well-publicized time might expose them to potential danger from an intruder on the school grounds.
Bluffton students were not alone in their plans to express themselves. All of the Beaufort County high schools gave students the opportunity to work with their administrations on relevant and meaningful activism.
In support of the Parkland high school’s school colors of burgundy, maroon and silver, some schools allowed their students to deviate from school uniforms for this occasion. At May River High School, many students, faculty and staff wore red and those who did were permitted to wear jeans. Many students and staff at Bluffton swapped the school’s green and black for burgundy.
May River’s program began with students exiting classrooms as part of “Walk-in Wednesday.”
Many linked arms for the short assembly broadcast over the public address system and conducted by several students.
Principal Todd Bornscheuer introduced the program, saying that such an event was a first for him in his career, as well as probably all of the staff. He urged everyone to pay attention to the message so that it resonated long after the event was over.
Sophomore Haley Bevenour, who spoke during the program, explained that she wanted to help open the conversation about guns and mental illness.
“I wanted to help stop this from happening again. I don’t want it to happen here and I don’t want it to happen anywhere else,” said Bevenour. “Things need to change.”
At Bluffton High, students walked out of their classrooms and gathered in the hall for a moment of silence. Garison said that a number of students who had written permission from their parents left the school and walked across the street carrying signs to an area where their parents were waiting.
She also said a small handful of students without permission slips also left the building..
Bluffton junior Trevor Rizzo spoke during the morning’s school program and told his classmates:
“We stand today seeking to make genuine change within our country. We stand today to ensure that no other generation must endure what the students of Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, University of Texas, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just to name a few examples. That being said, we have the unique position of being able to make necessary change within our country. We have the ability to express our opinions to legislators, both in the South Carolina statehouse and the U.S. capitol building.”
Before returning to their desks, participants were given sticky notes on which they could write whatever they felt – personal thoughts or a letter to their legislators.
“These notes could be for the families that lost a loved one, notes about gun safety and safety in our schools or just a reflection about how they are feeling,” said Garison.
A number of messages appeared on the atrium wall, and the largest display named each of the Stoneman Douglas victims.
One note simply stated, “We’ll never forget.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.