March 7, 2018

Students Plan Walkout, Call for Gun Control

By Donald Gilpin

“It could’ve been us,” reads the Facebook announcement of the PHS Walkout to Protest Gun Violence. “Join us on Wednesday, March 14th. Front lawn.”

In conjunction with thousands of schools across the country, the Princeton High School (PHS) student-led demonstration, seeking stricter gun laws, will protest “the government’s mishandling and lack of change over gun violence in America.” 

The event will start at 10 a.m. and last for 17 minutes, one for each victim in the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Princeton Public Schools (PPS) are supporting the walkout and students who wish to participate, and PHS students are planning an additional hour of related activities, including voter registration, call and writing centers to contact Congress members and senators, service project areas, discussions, quiet spaces, mental health awareness, and 17 stations around the school for acts of kindness.

“Our school’s walkout is not only a way to show solidarity with the students at Stoneman Douglas, but it is a way to show that it is now our time to speak up,” said junior May Kotsen, one of the event organizers. ”We refuse to let these guns that encourage mass murder to continue to exist and it is going to be us that change them. We refuse to let the NRA control our lives and our education.”

Talia Fiester, a co-founder, along with Kotsen, of the PHS Democrats in Action who are sponsoring the event, commented on the school’s support for the walkout. “We’re grateful for their support of gun reform. Many schools will have a 17-minute walkout, but we are grateful that the PHS administration is not opposed to this and is even extending it,” she said. “The students are organizing and leading. We want to show that students have some kind of agency in government even though we can’t vote yet.”

PHS Principal Gary Snyder echoed the student leaders’ comments. “It is
important for me to emphasize that the students are driving the actions,” he said. “They are eager for people to hear their voices and their message. They are thoughtful and articulate about their desire to have a meaningful voice in the national dialogue about school safety. Teachers share the desire for school safety and want to support students in their efforts.”

Snyder, along with teachers, other administrators, and a number of parent representatives, will continue to work with students in planning the March 14 activities. Students who choose not to participate in the walkout or projects will be provided with an opportunity to read, reflect, or study independently.

John Witherspon Middle School (JWMS) students and staff will also have the opportunity to show their support and solidarity, according to a letter sent out to parents last week by PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane. For those who wish to participate, a 17-minute walk is planned, which may culminate in the formation of a heart on the field next to JWMS, and additional activities may also be offered.

Cochrane noted that March 14 events at JWMS and PHS are for students and staff only, with increased security provided for students and roads closed around the middle school and high school between 9:45 and 10:45 that morning.

“We wish to thank our students for their engagement in such an important issue that directly affects them and their peers,” Cochrane added. “The safety of students must be prioritized and not politicized. We are proud of our students and the students across the nation, who are taking action and setting an example for the rest of us to follow.”

The Princeton Board of Education (BOE) last week issued a statement in response to the Parkland shooting and a call to “elected officials who have power at the state and federal level to step up, to make changes, and to pass sensible legislation that prioritizes our students’ safety in school over the desire of a few to own these dangerous weapons.”

In the statement sent directly to the White House, the New Jersey governor, U.S. senators and representatives, state senators and state assembly members, the school board continued, “As stewards of our most precious resource — our children, who are the future of this state and of this country — we believe that school boards and school districts can remain silent no more. We applaud the efforts of students in our district and throughout the country in calling for change. It is time for all of us to stand up, and we call upon the officials who can make a difference, to act now to protect our children.”

Cochrane reported at last week’s BOE meeting that the district had completed security audits at all the schools and that representatives of the Board Facilities Committee had met with Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter to explore ways to enhance security in the schools.

Fiester and others had expressed concern over the possibility of armed security guards at PHS, but Board President Patrick Sullivan affirmed that “there is no intention at this time to provide any armed presence at our school buildings.”

Kotsen commented on the planned walkout. “As someone living in the United States in 2018, I should not be afraid to go to school,” she said. “After every big school shooting, the teachers make sure to warn us that there will be a drill soon. The drills suddenly become a lot more real when we see the faces of teens that look a lot like us on the news. What I’m asking for is common-sense gun control.”

Reflecting on the impetus for the March 14 protest, Fiester added, “this is really important, especially in the political climate now.”