On a day when thousands of students nationwide walked outside to protest school shootings, senior Gabrielle Rabon urged her City High/Middle classmates to walk into voting booths.
“We need to make real change and real policy happen by voting,” Gabrielle told hundreds of students gathered in an amphitheater behind the school. Facing students holding aloft placards proclaiming “Enough is Enough” and “Am I Next?,” she challenged students turning 18 to vote in upcoming elections and push for legislation to help end mass school shootings.
“This cannot happen anymore,” Gabrielle said forcefully. “This cannot be tolerated. We need to speak up with all the power we have, because we are the voice of America. In the next couple of years, all of us will have this same power, and we need to use it.”
On a bright and chilly morning, students at City High/Middle and around Kent County joined others demonstrating across America Wednesday, a month after the Feb. 14 massacre that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
From walkouts such as City’s, to identifying 17 ways they can support each other, students took part in voluntary activities to honor the Parkland victims and commit themselves to ending school gun violence. Their tone was both mournful and angry, expressing the frustration of a generation that grew up following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
“It’s just a tragic event in Parkland and we’ve seen (school shootings) all throughout my life,” said Chloe Warmuskerken, a senior at Northview High School. “It’s all we’ve known, really.”
School Leaders Take Heat
For schools, the day was a delicate balance between accommodating some students’ desire to protest while respecting others’ choices not to participate. Officials also did not want to be drawn into the hot political debate over how to curb school violence, including the divisive issue of gun control.
In Kenowa Hills, permission slips that went home to parents pointedly stated, “This walk is NOT to represent or politicize gun violence and the gun laws.”
In Grand Rapids Public Schools, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal acknowledged she’s gotten some heat for supporting student and staff participation – as have other school districts. Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld criticized rewarding students by letting them out of class for what he called “a pretty exciting field trip,” and questioned whether teachers will think less of students who didn’t participate.
‘For the first time ever, people are listening primarily to the students, and to the victims.’ – Ellie Lancaster, City High School senior class president
But Neal said the day was an important way for students to learn about being socially conscious, and to help younger ones process the reality of school shootings.
“I have to do what’s right for my kids,” said Neal, who attended the ceremony at City High/Middle but did not speak there. “They see it on TV, even 5-year-olds. We need to help them.”
GRPS also received criticism from six City High students, who in an open letter said the district’s organization of the day’s activities was a “co-option of our movement and a restriction of our expression” about needed political change. Requiring students to get parental permission slips represented “a condescending, hand-holding attitude,” students wrote.
District spokesman John Helmholdt called the letter “extremely well-written” and said, “Hats off to those students.” However, he stressed the district was obligated to conduct a well-organized event to ensure student safety and avoid “disruption and chaos.”
“We want to be sensitive to hundreds of kids exiting schools in an unbridled manner,” Helmholdt said. “We are not trying to stifle voices or protests in any way.”
‘Keep Fighting and Be Strong’
Indeed, City student voices sounded far from stifled in the ceremony, in which the “vast majority” of the school’s 870 students in grades 7-12 participated, said Principal Ryan Huppert. Those who chose not to join in studied or held related discussions in the media center.
‘This cannot happen anymore. This cannot be tolerated.’ – Gabrielle Rabon, City High School senior
Students began by naming the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting and carrying their photos, followed by a moment of silence. Senior class President Ellie Lancaster then gave an impassioned speech, clearly moved by the mass of students holding up signs before her. She called it “one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”
Struggling through tears, she spoke of critical comments online about an interview with her and Gabrielle Rabon, questioning the point of the protest and saying they were “just a bunch of kids.”
“They’re right. We are just a bunch of kids,” Ellie said, her voice shaking. “But we’ve also been the victims of over 100 school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012. And that’s not OK.”
Responding to those who doubt the student #neveragain movement will accomplish anything, Ellie urged students not to end their efforts that day. Fellow organizers handed out voter registration applications, and Ellie encouraged students to attend the March for Our Lives protest at Rosa Parks Circle on March 24. Some City students are also taking a bus to the national rally that day in Washington, D.C.
“I encourage everybody here to keep fighting, and be strong with your voice,” Ellie implored students. “For the first time ever, people are listening primarily to the students, and to the victims. This is our space to talk and open a dialog and actually enact change.
“I hope you save the names of the victims and never forget them, and make sure that our (legislative) representatives never forget them,” she added. “They’re adults, and they don’t know how we feel about this. They don’t know what we’re going through.”
Determined to Create Change
Gabrielle Rabon echoed her point, saying “students are subjected to fear, every day that we walk into school,” and that “we are literally out here trying to stand up for our lives.”
Many listeners got the message. They said lawmakers, not just students, need to do something. Carrying signs such as “Arms are for hugging,” several said stricter gun-control measures must be part of the solution.
As a student and a Muslim, sophomore Justine Schumaker said she felt empowered by the event but also feels vulnerable to shootings.
“We must stop gun violence in general,” Justine said. “It’s not just schools that are being affected. It’s mass shootings in churches and mosques and a bunch of different public areas.
“At the end of the day we need to have stricter gun laws to make sure that the citizens of this country and students are safe.”
Taking action to be safe was a message made clear in students’ clasped hands and determined voices.
“We don’t have to walk in fear every day,” Gabrielle Rabon vowed. “Enough is enough. This is the last time. It has to be.”
Erin Albanese contributed to this story