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Schools, students across LI prepare for symbolic 17-minute walkout

Educators and students are figuring out how to balance activism and safety in Wednesday’s planned demonstration, a response to Florida shooting.

Sanford H. Calhoun High School students, from left,

Sanford H. Calhoun High School students, from left, Amritha Jacob, 14, Kara Vecchione, 17, and Carson Termotto, 16, at the North Merrick Public Library on March 6, 2018, discuss plans for a student walkout in response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Schools on Long Island and nationwide are performing a delicate dance as they work both to allow and control student-led walkouts planned Wednesday morning in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Student government leaders and top administrators, in districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties, have negotiated to hammer out details in search of a balance that permits student activism while ensuring safety for the demonstration, planned at 10 a.m. during the school day.

Wednesday’s walkout — for 17 minutes, symbolic of the number of students and staff members slain that day — has been promoted by multiple organizations across many social media sites for nearly three weeks. Mention of it often has been paired with notices for the “March For Our Lives” set March 24 in Washington, D.C., and dozens of cities and towns nationally.

Former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, 19, who police said used a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle in his rampage through the school, has been indicted on 34 counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder. He is being held without bond.

With the issue of school safety and security continuing to command prominence, a growing number of educators on Long Island have settled on school-sanctioned tributes or walkouts Wednesday that serve as more of a memorial to the victims of the shooting than a politically oriented protest focused on gun violence or regulation. Some educators are preparing Parkland-specific lesson plans that cover issues of mental health and civic activism. In some schools, students can address letters to their legislators seeking stricter gun measures or even register to vote.

Other districts, citing their code of conduct, are warning parents and residents that students could face disciplinary action if they cut class or leave school grounds.

“At 10 a.m. on March 14, I’m responsible for 2,064 kids. I can’t have them just marching out of the school without a plan in place,” said Hampton Bays Superintendent Lars Clemensen, who also is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. In his district, school-sponsored activities include a social studies lesson plan for high school students that explores the role of civil disobedience in society.

A state Education Department official told Newsday that “this is a matter for school districts to address at the local level.”

Some administrators told Newsday they still are deliberating on plans in their districts.

Hayden Gise, 17, a senior at Hewlett High School, said that after the shooting, fear was rampant, with students sharing their own versions of school escape plans and flinching at sounds. He and other students, many of whom had gone to a sleepaway camp with victims and survivors of the Parkland shooting, have discussed with administrators the specifics of Wednesday’s walkouts, such as whether students will face discipline or if the tributes would be safer indoors.

Students there said they are planning a six-minute moment of silence and the release of 17 orange balloons — one for each of the students and staff members killed. Some speakers will plead for gun reform during a short presentation.

“Sometimes you need to decide when it’s appropriate to stand up for what you believe in,” Gise said. “It’s the ultimate question of picking your battles.”

In the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district, administrators will permit a tribute on campus that will be secured by officers from the Nassau County Police Department. The district also will hold lockdown drills at its two middle schools and the high school, in each of the school day’s nine periods, covering evacuation plans, barriers and where students can hide.

Superintendent Lorna Lewis said the district usually holds four lockdown drills a year under the requirements of a state law. But she considers that approach insufficient, she said, because it prepares students in just the four classrooms where the training occurred. Generally, secondary school students are in a different classroom each period.

“It really is for them an expression of memoriam, rather than an expression of walking out, an expression of sympathy for the 17 families who lost their lives,” Lewis said of that portion of the observance.

She said the decision to organize the event was not a tough call.

“I didn’t struggle with it, because my students immediately contacted me and expressed a desire to do something,” Lewis said. “And I was quite open to listening to them, hearing their voices, and having them create a day that both they and we would live with.”

In the Lawrence school district, students are planning a vigil during the day in the high school gymnasium with speeches about the school shooting, and later a walk around the track. During the week, students can register to vote in their social studies classrooms. The voter registration drive is typically held in February, but student government leaders wanted it to coincide with the Parkland tributes in the hopes of generating more enthusiasm about it.

“The goal is to keep it as nonpartisan as possible. It really isn’t about guns per se, because we have kids in the school who go hunting with their parents, and we have kids who are very upset about gun violence,” said Stephen Sullivan, a social studies teacher at Lawrence High School and the student government adviser.

The school-sponsored exercises, “to a certain extent, it was to prevent the kids from getting themselves in trouble,” Sullivan said. He explained that the school leaders wanted to support the students’ objectives, and that educators’ and students’ views were practically in alignment. “Protesting against school violence and coming together — this wasn’t exactly bus segregation in the South. I’m not suggesting this isn’t serious: This seemed like a point of agreement, not a point of contention.”

Carson Termotto, 16, a junior at Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, met last week with fellow students to plan a student-led event on Wednesday morning.

“Sadly, it could be one of us in the next shooting, so I think the fact that it could be really resonates with people and really shocks people into learning and getting involved,” he said.

In the Eastport-South Manor district, this week has been dedicated as “Mental Health Week” — a celebration sponsored nationwide. Administrators are organizing a walk to the school’s football field, where students in grades seven through 12 will circle the track for a 17-minute moment of silence.

“This is student advocacy for safety, a basic human principle. This is not an overt statement about the Second Amendment or gun ownership,” Eastport-South Manor Superintendent Patrick Brimstein said. “It’s about students’ safety and not being fearful in schools.”

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said the state’s largest teacher union is encouraging its members to wear orange — the color adopted by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students since the shooting — to honor the lives lost.

“Teachers teach students to be responsible citizens, and to be engaged in our democracy, so we support students when they want to speak out on matters of public importance such as this,” Korn said.

Letters from administrators in some Long Island districts have emphasized the potential for disciplinary measures.

Brenden Cusack, principal of Huntington High School, wrote that “an absence from class will not be considered an excused absence.” He also wrote: “Students may not disrupt the educational process and may not infringe upon the rights of others who choose not to participate.”

Any walkout “will be monitored” by school staff, and a staging area on campus will be provided. “Students may not leave campus at any time during this event,” Cusack’s letter read.

On Tuesday night, on the eve of the walkouts, Huntington is hosting a forum called “How Can We Stop Mass Shootings in Our Communities” that will be moderated by students.

In Rocky Point, Superintendent Michael Ring’s letter to the community said “organized student-led building walkouts, such as those being discussed nationally via social media, are not a viable option for our schools . . . No Rocky Point student will be permitted to leave the premises as part of any of these upcoming events” without appropriate permission.

The School Administrators Association of New York State, in a letter of recommendations published on the organization’s website, wrote about its research into ways that schools should handle planned student action.

“We have concluded that there is no one ‘correct’ approach,” the organization wrote. It also suggested that schools meet with their attorneys, and that various questions needed to be addressed: “Can you make a ‘walkout’ an optional school event? Should you? Is it OK with the district and student leaders? Does it have to be outside or could there be an inside assembly point?”

The New York State School Boards Association posted a letter on its website addressing various issues. Among them, it noted that “it would be ill advised for a school district to provide such support, based upon the well-established principle that school districts have no express authority to engage in political activities. This would be particularly the case where, as here, the school district is not in a position to control the agenda based upon it being directed by outside parties. Accordingly, school district sponsorship of such activities would not appear to be a viable option.”

Many colleges and universities across the country have announced support for the activism, saying they would not let any disciplinary action affect students’ standing in the college admissions process.

Tracey Gise, Hayden’s mother, said she had no concerns about her son participating in a walkout.

“He has sat down with the administration. They’re aware that this is going on,” she said. She cited colleges’ announcements that they would not penalize students if they are disciplined for participating in a school walkout.

“It feels good to know that it’s not going to have any negative effect on his future next year, and the colleges stand behind what he’s doing,” she said.

In the Springs district, the walkout for students in the fifth through eighth grades will be held in a courtyard, and students will plant daffodils and read poetry. Superintendent Debra Winter said her students had expressed concern about holding the ceremony outside, thinking it would be “irresponsible.”

“Some schools are struggling with their own policies, because their policies require discipline for something like this,” Winter said. “But there’s not enough time to change a policy. What the administrators are doing is having conversations with students on what would you like to do, what’s an alternative that you can organize?”

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