Students Reflect On Wednesday’s Walkout, What’s Next

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Celia Clarke / WSKG Public Media

Lena Kennell, right, and her mom, Melody Ramsey, at their home in Newfield.

BINGHAMTON (WSKG) – “We need to honor the victims of school shootings with change. We need to honor them with policy.”

Lena Kennell, a sophomore at Newfield High School in Tompkins County, organized her school’s walkout with her friend, Caitlin Howell, senior.

“We can make a difference even if we can’t vote.”

So, what’s next for students throughout the Southern Tier, after they organized walkouts to draw attention to the impacts of gun violence?

To a certain extent, they have major governmental support behind them. Governor Andrew Cuomo participated in a walkout at a school in Manhattan Wednesday, even laying down as part of a “die in.”

Cuomo also urged State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia to direct schools not to discipline students who walked out and to investigate reports of districts blocking school exits.

“These young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington,” said Cuomo, in a letter to Elia.

Read the full text of the letter below.

Urging Washington lawmakers to act was a big theme in Wednesday’s event.

“Today was wonderful. Today was important. Today was historical. But sadly, today was not enough.”

That’s according to students throughout the country associated with the group March for Our Lives. They’re planning a march on Washington D.C. later this month and many students in the Southern Tier plan to participate.

“We’re going to go to our nation’s Capital, town squares, city centers, rural roads, and village parks to demand our lives be defended. We’re going to ask every ‘leader’ what they’re doing to protect us. It will be unified call for our lives.”

Many students who walked out of their classrooms are calling on their representatives to do just that.

At Newfield High School, Kennell and Howell encouraged other students to volunteer for campaigns, call their Congressperson, and offered to mail the letter for them.

“I believe that there is a big problem with gun violence in this country and something needs to be done because so far Congress has only been inactive,” said Jake Brown, a senior at Newfield High School. “They haven’t done anything to stop what is going on.”

For Kennell, she thinks firearms are a good idea for self-defense, but doesn’t think people need semi-automatic weapons or bump stocks.

However, she thinks the conversation needs to move beyond firearms to talk about mental health.

Sarah Gager / WSKG Public Media

Maine-Enwell High School. Administrators told students they would be in violation of the school’s code of conduct if they walked out. However, the school held a few events focused on mental health and school safety.

Tyler, a senior at Maine-Endwell High School, agrees with her.

His school held a few events Wednesday focused on mental health and school safety.

He grew up around guns and feels comfortable around them. He doesn’t think more restrictions on guns will make a difference. Mass shootings, he says, are a mental health issue.

“Nobody goes out and kills that many people. Whether there’s gun laws or not, it’s a mental issue,” said Tyler.

Other people, like Brenda Evans, want to see concrete steps. Her daughter is a freshman at Maine-Endwell with Tyler, but she didn’t even attend school on Wednesday. So, while a handful of students walked out and congregated in the school foyer, Evans stood outside the school.

She’s concerned about her daughter’s safety.

“Maine-Endwell is one of the better schools, but it can happen anywhere. There’s kids in class that she, you know, wonders about. We all have them,” said Evans.

Metal detectors should be installed in every school, she said.

Evans and these young people aren’t finished.

“This is an issue that needs to be solved and we will not take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Kennell.

Amidst their varying perspectives on school safety, it’s clear to them, they need see change.

Dear Commissioner Elia,

Yesterday, I proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with brave students and faculty who spoke out against gun violence. History provides moments where real change is possible, and the thousands of students who participated in organized walk-outs all throughout the state are seizing the moment and admirably standing up for the safety of their classmates and students across the country.

In the last 24 hours, there have been several reports of New York State schools disciplining students and faculty for participating in yesterday’s historic events to stop gun violence. In at least one disturbing incident, it was reported that the school physically blocked the exits to prevent students from demonstrating.

These actions send a terrible message to New York’s children and are against constitutional free speech protections. I call on you to use SED’s authority to stop these schools, reverse course and cease any disciplinary actions.

Peaceful expression of views on controversial issues that is not disruptive or threatening is a right that all students have in this country, and any attempts to stifle this speech violates the constitutional rights of students and faculty to free speech. Threatening to discipline students for participating in the peaceful demonstrations is not only inappropriate, it is unconstitutional. Reports that schools may also discipline faculty are also highly concerning and would send a terrible message to our students.

The students who participated in the walk-out are trying to advance laws and actions that would save their lives, and many viewed their participation as necessary to their own safety. The scourge of mass shootings in schools is very real, and these students were taking proactive steps to protect themselves and their classmates. These actions, coupled with the peaceful manner in which the demonstrations were conducted, is something that should be lauded, not punished.

Additionally, I call on you to thoroughly investigate any reports of schools that blocked the exits to physically prevent students from leaving during the event. This an egregious safety violation and it is also unlawful.

Yesterday’s actions were a testament to the courage and leadership of New York’s students. As I said yesterday, these young people are showing more leadership than the so-called leaders in Washington. To punish or discipline them is inconsistent with the freedom of expression that we cherish. It would say more about the adults imposing discipline than it would about the students who exercised their rights to speak out.

Sincerely,

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

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