If WHRHS students take part in a symbolic 17-minute national student walkout centering on the gun control issues on Wednesday, March 14 they will not face suspensions.
School officials have been discussing with students what form their action may take in efforts to support expression of First Amendment freedoms while keeping them safe and ensuring no instructional time is lost.
The walkout, organized by students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., is one of two upcoming national actions sponsored by the Never Again MSD group. The other is a series of March for Our Lives protests in Washington, D.C., and cities around the country – including Boston – on Saturday, March 24.
A previous student walkout observed nationally took place a week after the Feb. 14 Parkland mass shooting, and fell during school vacation week in the Bay State.
W-H Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak discussed his approach during an update on school safety and security at the Wednesday, Feb, 28 School Committee meeting.
“This really seems to be right now a high school issue,” he said. “Kids are buzzing around – ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to do anything? Are you going to take a stand against us if we walk out of school?’”
He invited students and faculty to a meeting Thursday, March 1 to talk about what the students may have in mind for the observation between 10 and 10:17 a.m., March 14, and has already designated a school-wide study period around that time to ensure no instructional time is lost.
“If they want to take the lead, I’m super-happy that we have some vocal kids in this school … we have some really good community members as well and they’re interested in what’s going on in this country,” Szymaniak said. “Right or wrong, left or right, I’d like to hear what they have to say.”
While he is not sure if the students plan to do a walkout, stay in class and write their congressmen, or go to theygym for a period of quiet reflection to honor the 17 lives lost on Feb. 14, Szymaniak said he has talked to teachers to make sure they are supervised and both police departments to make sure they are safe.
“If we’re going to do anything, there has to be some communication with our legislators about how we feel at Whitman-Hanson,” he said, noting the students are concerned about mental health and how the “system didn’t work this time, but it can in the future” and perhaps students can help lead that change.
If television crews show up, however, they will not be allowed to enter school grounds during school hours and students have been advised to avoid social media debates with adults on sites such as Whitman Pride or Hanson Connect. Community members who have questions should contact him directly, Szymaniak said, a position echoed by Committee Chairman Bob Hayes, who also welcomes questions from the community.
At South Shore Vo-Tech, Superintendent-Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey said students are thoughtfully organizing a remembrance activity on March 14 during the 17-minute window in memory of the lives lost in Florida.
“They are coordinating ideas with administrators,” he said. “Students who do not wish to participate will not be required to.”
W-H School Committee member Robert Trotta applauded the students’ wish to express their opinions.
“I think there’s a lot of strength in what has been going on for the youth,” he said. “Hopefully that will be the root of a new generation taking care of this particular problem.”
The school district has made safety and security one of its three operational pillars in recent years.
“We were all horrified by the shootings on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla., just as we were horrified by Sandy Hook in December 2012, this also brought home to us two weeks ago how critically important the safety and security of our students, our staff, our schools, our communities is to all of us,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “In our response to this we communicated with families, our building principals have also communicated as well.”
The district’s Safety and Security Committee met Monday, Feb. 26 with chiefs and their deputies from both towns to review what is currently being done to ensure it.
“We would have had that meeting anyway, we meet with them regularly, but clearly the focus on this was what happens when there is an active intruder or active shooter,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “A big comfort to everyone is we do have very strong partnerships with our police and fire departments.” The district’s committee is also bolstered by representation of all grade levels by principals from Duval, Hanson Middle and the high school.
A meeting was also planned Thursday, March 1with teacher union representatives Kevin Kavka and Beth Stafford to discuss staff involvement in school safety and security as well as a parent information night on Tuesday, March 6.
There are things people can do, the meetings were intended to stress.
“If something doesn’t look right, doesn’t sound right, doesn’t seem right — report it,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “I think we’ve found that, since Sandy Hook, people are better at that. We’re finding that here at the high school if students hear something, they’ll report it.”
People have been instructed not to prop doors open, to go through security and to wear ID badges to help ensure student safety.
Teachers and administrators had also taken part in a tabletop emergency drill using a fire scenario as recently as Feb. 8.