Just after 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, students at Indian River High School stood together, silent. They were invited to fill the hallways and memorialize their peers in Florida who were shot and killed exactly one month prior.
March 14 was the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died and more were injured.
A nationwide Walkout movement encouraged students to take action at 10 a.m. on March 14 and spend 17 minutes (one per fatality) however they chose. They might walk out of the classroom or the building, stand in silence, share stories or speak the names of gun-violence victims. Most importantly, students were encouraged to take the lead.
When the Indian River School District put the kibosh on kids exiting the schools for the Walkout, citing concerns about safety, IRHS Principal Michael Williams turned to the IRHS student council.
“They wanted to do something that day. … Even though we couldn’t take 1,000 kids outside, we were able to do something inside at the same time, to recognize that,” Williams said. “So kids are going to line the hallways for a moment of silence, as a sign of unity and solidary and support of students from … Parkland, Fla.”
Not all IRHS students participated, but a large number of them did. Many also planned to wear burgundy and silver — the school colors of the Florida high school.
“It’s giving kids a voice to view their concern, so that’s what we’re doing,” Williams said. “We don’t want to be disruptive or interfere with the regular instruction that’s going on.”
IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele consulted with law-enforcement and principals before deciding that the Indian River School District would not support students exiting the building for the Walkout.
“A school walkout would not only be a major safety concern, but a disruptive event to the educational process for all students,” Steele said in a call and email to district parents. “Therefore, we do not support this protest, and our expectation is that students will remain in the building, as we are unable to provide the same level of safety outside in an open area. We will adhere to all district policies related to this issue.”
He did not elaborate on the potential role of school safety monitors in overseeing a walkout. District staff wouldn’t comment on whether principals would discipline any students who would leave the classroom or building unauthorized.
In addition to the brief moment of silence at IRHS, three students left the building, one went to the auditorium and about a dozen or so stood in the hallway for the full 17 minutes.
At Sussex Central High School, 28 students left class and were directed to the cafeteria. In Selbyville Middle School, 19 students went to the gym. At Millsboro Middle School, 33 students left the building, and 16 students stood in the hallway and lobby. At Georgetown Middle School, 22 students left the building and went to the football stadium.
District policy allows for peaceful student protests that don’t disrupt classes or present hazards to people and property.
Many parents and students weighed the right to protest versus safety.
“The safety of our students should be the No. 1 priority,” said IR senior Ella Baull, who supported any walkout that could be done safely. “I think it’s a great statement to show solidarity with the shooting of students in Florida. When one school hurts, I feel as if all schools hurt, due to the fact that that sort of incident could happen at literally any school.”
Students were still encouraged to speak up or write their legislators.
“As an educator, I also feel compelled to teach our students the importance of engaging in civic and social discussions on what is occurring around them,” Steele wrote. “I have requested that our secondary principals work with the students and staff in each of their buildings to develop activities within the safety of our buildings that will provide students a way to voice their concerns, no matter where they fall in this debate.
“In closing, let me reassure you that our District will support students and staff who may have questions, raise concerns or need reassurance when talking about school violence,” Steele concluded.
Although Williams said school violence is alarming in general, “I feel like we’re constantly very proactive to keeping things safe and presenting hazards, so … I feel like we’re constantly doing what we need to do.”
In recent years, and with referendum support, IRSD has spent a substantial amount of money on school safety, including hiring a highly trained and armed school safety monitor for each school; hiring school resource officers (SROs) — actual police officers who provide additional safety; hiring clinical counselors to address students’ emotional needs; securing front entrances and installing visitor screening systems; designating school safety teams in each building to regularly assess issues; and supplying all schools with radios to enhance communication.
The March 14 Youth Empower Walkout was organized by teenage activists associated with the Women’s March.
Similar demonstrations are occurring nationwide with the March for Our Lives on March 24, organized by Parkland survivors, and the April 20 National Student Walkout, on the anniversary of Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
“The recent school shooting that occurred … has left our nation in a state of grief, fear and anger. Our hearts and prayers go out to the parents and families, as well as the entire school community,” Steele wrote.