While many students across the nation honored victims of the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Florida by walking out of their schools, some Kent County students expressed their concern in a variety of creative ways. The number 17 served as a marker not only for moments of silence in honor of those killed, but for students’ thoughts on how to make schools safer and kinder.
Sparta High School
With an eye toward honoring the memory of the 17 lives lost in Florida, students used the number 17 as a touchstone for ways to improve school culture. The idea was to encourage each other to commit to positive acts that would help to create a culture to end school violence. The message: “What is your 17?”
At 10 a.m., students were invited to join the walkout via a video produced by senior Emma Stream. Students choosing to leave class gathered for a silent walk and met in the gymnasium for comments and encouragement to support each other — to find their “17.”
“I plan to say ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ to 17 people that I normally wouldn’t every day,” said junior Tomee Smith.
‘The message that we want to send is that it is our challenge to care for one another.’ — Sparta High School Principal Matt Spencer
Emma had already put her resolution into practice by reaching out to a freshman sitting alone earlier in the week.
“I actually missed a class but I even ended up driving her to the choir concert that night,” she said. “I plan to do this whenever I get an opportunity — and hopefully it will be more than 17 times.”
Struck by one Sparta student’s memory of sharing a “moment of silence” for the victims shown on the video, Principal Matt Spencer told the students in the gym, “The message that we want to send is that it is our challenge to care for one another.”
Participating in the walkout “represented an opportunity for learning, with real-life and curricular relevance for high school aged students,” said Superintendent Gordie Nickels.
Northview High School
Students took action in two ways: an apolitical memorial in the gymnasium in honor of those who died in Parkland, and a 17-minute walkout during which students stood in silent protest to inspire change.
Students leading the efforts said they were happy administrators allowed them the option to take part in both kinds of demonstrations, and that they were eager to add their voices to the conversation.
Inside, Student Council members named each victim of the shooting; students observed 17 seconds of silence; and council members named 17 ways students can support each other, from being inclusive to asking for help. The Student Council requested the inside memorial.
|17 ways to make a difference
Compiled by students at Northview High School
“We wanted to do something to honor the 17 lives because that was one thing I saw everyone agree on: the 17 people should not have lost their lives,” said senior Chloe Warmuskerken. “We thought we could do an event to get everyone to come together through that.”
“We didn’t want to divide any more than the United States is already divided. We wanted to unite more than divide,” said senior Gavyn Webb.
Outside, students stood in silence, many linking arms. Junior Morgan King, who led the effort, said she felt an outside walkout was important, though she understood why some wanted to be inside.
“They wanted to keep it not political, but to me it was already made political because (Parkland students’) deaths were caused by something that should not have happened,” she said. “I felt just going to the gym wasn’t enough because, yes, we wanted to honor their lives, but we wanted to honor their lives more than just give them silence and hopes. We wanted to try to inspire change.”
‘We need parents and adults to realize we are not OK with people dying because of this.’ — Northview junior Morgan King
Instead of less talk about the issue, Morgan and others said they want more.
“We just want to be able to talk about this because some teachers and some adults just don’t want to,” she said. ”We want everyone to know we want a change.
“We need adults to take responsibility because we are not of age yet and we can’t do anything on the government level. We need parents and adults to realize we are not OK with people dying because of this.”
Junior Jake Domagalski said he hopes students don’t become complacent moving forward. “As a Northview student, I was filled with pride that people do want to share their voice and come together in the face of a tragedy like this. Everybody has a voice.”
video by Laura Michels
Kenowa Hills Middle School
Student organizers wanted the focus of their walkout not to be on guns, but honoring those who died.
“We need to know this isn’t right,” said Jayna Dyke, a sixth-grader. She, along with Ashley Lopez-Matias and Addyson McDowell-Dennie, were members of the school’s Global Warriors service group who “really got the ball rolling” on the activity, said teacher Lynée Gilbert, the group’s supervisor.
Besides organizing a plan, the girls wrote a letter to teachers and staff about how the walk would work, stating, ”Let’s take a stand AGAINST school violence and FOR change!” The trio even created the permission slips sent out to parents to allow their children to participate in the walkout.
“It was a special event,” Gilbert said. The students are still talking about it. We have mounted our posters on our walls and it is very powerful.”
School safety is a complex issue that’s not just about guns, she added, but also about paying attention to others at school, which was behind the focus the girls chose.
Middle school students, some carrying signs they had made with slogans like “Stop the Silence and End the Violence,” joined high schoolers at the football field to walk around the track to honor the students and teachers who were killed. The names of those who died were read before the walk.
“We’re honoring them because we want to reach out to the families,” Ashley said. “We support you and are honoring your kids because we feel sad for you.”
Forest Hills Northern High School
Student organizers said an estimated 300 students gathered in the parking lot for a moment of silence honoring all victims of gun violence, not just those in school shootings. Three students then spoke about existing gun laws, the importance of voting, and being inclusive of those who are different.
The ceremony was closed to the media, but organizer Matthew Katz and speaker Kilian Guensche, both seniors, and junior Brett Bauman spoke afterward with School News Network on camera. In the video, Kilian bluntly summed up his hopes for the walkout’s impact:
“I want adults — I want them to care. I want them to care about us, and the kids who go to any school in America, and I want them to care about our safety. And I want them to know that we matter, and we have a voice. We are the future.”