Calls for a nationwide student walkout on March 14 to pressure Congress to enact legislation to reduce gun violence and improve school safety has local educators and administrators preparing accordingly.
The walkout is planned to last 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month in the deadliest school shooting in five years.
“We will work with the students as we have in the past,” Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said, referencing a walkout by some students last fall to protest President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides work permits and relief from deportation to certain undocumented children of immigrants.
“The DACA walkout was a success and took place at the end of the day during a scheduled time,” Williams said. “Students communicated and worked well with school administration. Any student that wanted to participate had the opportunity to participate.”
Gainesville High Principal Tom Smith said that while he is confident in the school system’s plan to handle any kind of demonstration, “We want to focus on educating our students. We have not heard any talk about a walkout at GHS.”
Williams reiterated that school officials are unaware of any plans for students to walk out, “but we will work with students and the Gainesville Police Department as the date approaches.”
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said administrators have discussed the issue with school leadership.
“And our high schools have engaged their students with the issue,” he added. “We are taking the approach of seeking our students’ input as to how to make their schools safer. We hope to avoid any perceived ‘need’ to have walkouts by listening now.”
Steven Mickens, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Lanier, said he has been in touch with Gainesville and Hall County school leaders to get an understanding of their plans if walkouts happen and “how we can ensure safety … and provide additional support.”
“We are planning on having conversations with our students, our middle schoolers and teens, just to kind of get a perspective on how they’re feeling,” Mickens said. “I just wanted to make sure we were in communication with our schools … and mirroring what the schools would like to be communicating with the kids.”
Mickens said it’s sad these conversations have to occur, but the reality and prevalence of school shootings make them necessary.
“We’ve kind of failed these kids,” he said. “We just need to do a better job in making sure that we’re involving them in the conversation, which is critical.”
The University of North Georgia in Gainesville, meanwhile, will not be in session on March 14.
“That day falls in the middle of UNG’s spring break and no classes are scheduled at that time,” UNG Chief of Staff Kate Maine said.
At Brenau University in Gainesville, President Ed Schrader said he and his staff are prepared to provide a safe and controlled space for students to honor the victims in Florida and express their grief
As a private school, Schrader said, “we have a little bit more freedom to address student involvement in civic affairs … in a less politically charged fashion.”
Schrader said educators and students at Brenau have been addressing concerns about gun violence and school safety for years. He hopes any demonstration March 14 will further that history within context of a robust educational experience.
Schrader said he expects students to gather and recite the names of the deceased in Florida and offer a moment of silence to memorialize the victims.
“They are strictly engaged in sharing grief and saying, ‘This should not happen,’” said.
One eighth-grade class at West Hall Middle School has chosen not to participate in the school walkouts proposed for March 14 and instead created a class project that explored gun violence and school safety in a personal and meaningful way. Read about their project in the Sunday edition of The Times and online at www.gainesvilletimes.com.