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#ENOUGH

A student-led movement calling for gun control legislation has reached Port Jefferson. Stock photo

The national walkout planned for March 14 came and went in Port Jefferson, and students stayed indoors. However kids from both Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts didn’t sit out of the gun control conversation playing out across the United States.

As discussions of a national movement sprung up in early March calling for students across the United States to at once exit school buildings beginning at 10 a.m. as a form of protest in response to the shooting that killed 17 people in Florida in February, administrators across the North Shore grappled with the idea of allowing students to demonstrate without punishment and the possible dangers associated with walking out of school.

Officials from both districts elected to schedule indoor assemblies to discuss school violence and gun control, encouraging students not to physically walkout of buildings.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts, so the day and time will be meaningful,” Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano said ahead of plans being finalized.

What eventually unfolded in Port Jeff, after collaboration between administration and students, was an assembly in the auditorium open to all students, in which victims of the shooting were honored, and then attendees were given the opportunity to deliver remarks that were approved by the administration prior to the event, according to students Gavin Barrett and Matt Pifko. The pair are among a group of students who both operate @pjhswalkout, an Instagram account which has served to organize those in the district interested in becoming more organized and vocal on gun control and overall school safety, and also participated in collaborating on the March 14 events with school officials, including Principal Christine Austen.

March For Our Lives to take place in PJS

By Alex Petroski

In accordance with the call to action issued by survivors of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a local March For Our Lives rally will take place in Port Jefferson Station at the intersection of Routes 112 and 347 March 24 from 1 to 3:30 p.m., according to representatives from the activists North Country Peace Group.

Students and families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others worldwide will take to the streets to demand action from elected officials to stem the escalation of gun violence and mass shootings in the nation’s schools. The Port Jefferson Station gathering is one of more than 650 events planned for that day.

The students and their parents are sponsoring the rally with help from The North Country Peace Group, Long Island Rising, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Building Bridges in Brookhaven. Two of those groups, Building Bridges and Moms Demand, were formed specifically in response to gun shootings.

The organizers said all are welcome to attend the Port Jefferson Station rally. To participate in the program (priority will be given to students) or to learn more about the event, contact ncpeaceg@gmail.com.

“I thought the assembly was a respectful balance of honoring the victims of the Parkland shooting and providing the students in attendance with an opportunity to bring awareness to the #Enough movement,” Austen said after the event.

Barrett and Pifko said the assembly had outcomes they viewed as both positive and negative, but overall applauded administration for its efforts in creating an environment in which students could express their views.

“I personally was able to share a lot of what I wanted to say,” Barrett said.

He added that an aspect of the planning was also to afford a platform to a friend with more conservative political leanings pertaining to gun control.

“Whatever people took away from our message, we were able to give them that freely and the school did let us speak freely on that front,” Pifko said. “We were able to inject political stances on it and genuine intent.”

The pair said they took issue with the conclusion of the assembly, which featured several faculty members reading an open letter purported to have been written by an educator that went viral on social media as news of a walkout swirled. The message of the letter was that rather than walking out of school, students should walk up to classmates viewed as outcasts in an effort to create a more inclusive school environment, a sentiment both students said they could get behind. But Barrett and Pifko said they weren’t aware the letter would be read, and while they could agree with the overall sentiment, they did not appreciate that the letter had a condescending tone, and included the line “Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer,” and felt the reading constituted faculty taking a political stand.

“The message of the letter was inclusivity; we want to encourage our students to make positive connections with one another in order to foster a welcoming school climate,” Austen said.

The students were clear to point out they don’t believe in tearing up the Second Amendment, but rather have a simpler political message and goal to their activism, which they said they plan to continue beyond the already-scheduled upcoming national demonstrations.

“We feel that students should be educated on the truth about gun legislation and gun control in a clear, concise and accurate manner,” Pifko said. “I think we educated people. We’re trying to create a discussion among peers.”

A station was also set up in the school where students were assisted in penning letters to members of Congress to express opinions on gun control. Barrett and Pifko said they also are trying to organize a group of students to travel to Manhattan March 24 to participate in New York’s version of March for Our Lives, a sister march to one taking place in Washington, D.C., the same day.

“One way or another these shootings have to stop,” Barrett said.

Ben Zaltsman, the school’s student body president, said he thought the assembly went perfectly and struck a good balance between memorial and political activism.

“I think the entire service was well balanced,” he said.

Comsewogue High School Principal Joe Coniglione and Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn did not respond to questions asking what was being planned on the 14th or how the day played out after the fact, but Quinn said administration was working with students on an event.

Maddy Glass, a student at Comsewogue High School, said in a text message that like Port Jeff, students in Comsewogue were encouraged to participate in the district plans rather than exiting the building, which included an auditorium assembly. Glass and about 30 of her peers were granted permission by Coniglione to exit the assembly at 10 a.m. and head to the gymnasium, where students observed a moment of silence and made phone calls to the offices of local elected officials to voice their opinions on gun control.

“I felt like the assembly got to what we needed to in some places, but not the way we really needed,” Glass said. “A walkout would’ve brought everyone together in a different way, but since our ‘walkout’ to the gym was only about 30 of us it still felt like students were divided.”

She said she also realized administrators were in a difficult position in deciding how to handle the day, and appreciated the efforts made to allow students to express their opinions. Glass also said she hoped the outcome of increased activism amongst her peers would be Congress implementing actions to stop mass shootings.

“I’ve never been the type of kid who loved school, but I felt like I had some safety there, and with all of these school shootings and knowing people affected by them, I don’t feel as safe as I used to,” she said. “And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.”

Students at Northport High School sat silently for 17 minutes during the national walkout. Photo from Aidan Bryant

Hundreds of Northport High School students walked out March 14 in hopes that their actions would speak louder than words.

Senior Ryan Dowling, student organizer of the walkout to pay tribute to the Parkland, Florida students and faculty killed in the school shooting one month ago, said she estimated between 200 to 300 students quietly left the building to sit in the front courtyard at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning in unified action with thousands across the country.

Students at Northport High School sat silently for 17 minutes during the national walkout. Photo from Juliana Conforti

“We decided that 17 minutes of silence was the best way to go,” Dowling said. “The point was to remember the 17 lives that were lost and to show we didn’t have to say anything to make our voices heard.”

There were no speeches given, no chanting and no homemade signs calling for gun control or legislation. Only a singular black banner with the word “Enough” written across it in white duct tape stood with the students. Those who didn’t walkout were seen photographing and videotaping the event from classroom windows, according to Dowling.

“I think that everyone was respectful and mature about it,” student participant Samantha Sanuki said. “I had a fear of it becoming political with those who disagreed with the walkout — those people who were sharing their political views.”

On their way back inside the building, Dowling and Sanuki said the participants encountered other students holding Trump banners or wearing pro-Trump T-shirts. Both say the atmosphere remained largely respectful in attempt to not disrupt those classes still in session.

Students at Northport High School gather outside the school during the national walkout. Photo from Juliana Conforti

Superintendent Robert Banzer and high school principal Daniel Danbusky had a meeting with the student organizers of the walkout prior to March 14, in which any student who considered participating was initially warned they could face up to three-day suspension for walking out without permission, according to Dowling.

“My parents were supportive of me when I made the decision to try to spearhead this movement,” she said. “My mom was encouraging me saying, ‘I think you should walk out, and if no one is starting the conversation, I believe you should it start it yourself.’”

Days before the event, the senior said Danbusky contacted the student organizers and participants would be considered cutting class for the period. It carries a considerably lighter punishment, a phone call or email to notify the student’s parents, according to Dowling.

“The students — those who decided to walk out and those who decided to stay in class — handled the matter with respect and dignity,” Banzer said in a statement. “Regardless of the decision they made, I am very proud of all of them for that.”

Ward Melville High School students walked out of classes March 14 as part of National Walkout Day to support gun legislation and remember the Parkland school shooting victims. Photo by Claire Miller

Ward Melville High School students were determined to make their voices heard.

Despite the Three Village school district’s official decision March 9 to not allow students to stage a walkout March 14, approximately 250 of them did so anyway. The walkout was held in conjunction with events across the nation honoring the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Feb. 14 to call for stricter gun control laws. Parents and students were told it was a joint decision by the board of education, principal and district’s lawyer to not encourage the walkout.

The students walked out of the gym entrance and headed toward Old Town Road so they could be seen by drivers passing by. Across the street two dozen parents and residents stood, some with signs, to support the teens.

A student holds up a sign during the March 14 walkout. Photo by Claire Miller

During the walkout, the students chanted “enough is enough,” and stopped for a moment of silence. Bennett Owens, a Ward Melville student and one of the walkout organizers, delivered a speech.

“We, the students of Ward Melville High School, along with hundreds of thousands of students across the nation have had enough,” Owens said. “We’ve had enough of gun violence. We’ve had enough of Congress’ inaction while nearly 1,300 kids are slaughtered each year as a result of gun violence. We’ve had enough of the [National Rifle Association] buying our representatives with their blood-soaked money. We’ve had enough of the argument that since we’re kids, we can’t change anything. We’ve had enough of adults telling us we can’t.”

Owens said asking Congress to introduce or support legislation that bans assault weapons, like the AR-15, was part of the students’ goal. Parents standing across the street from the walkout said they were proud of their children and their friends. Caren Johnson, whose daughter is in 10th grade, said she had tears in her eyes watching the students march out.

“This is really the first movement my daughter has been politically active in and I’m here to show her support,” Johnson said.

Osbert Orduña, a parent of a 11th-grader, said he believes it’s important for parents to come out to support the social activism of their children, especially when it comes to protesting assault weapons and discussions like school staff members being armed. Orduña held a sign that said he was a Republican and veteran who is against the NRA and assault weapons in the hands of everyday people.

“The kids are out here, and they are doing the right thing by voicing their opinions and voicing their displeasure with our elected officials,” Orduña said.

A parent shows her support for students during the March 14 walkout. Photo by Rita J. Egan

At the end of the school day March 9, the school district released a letter from Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich and board of education President William Connors explaining the district’s position on the matter. Various discussions were held with students and staff to find the best way for students to participate in what has been called the #Enough movement, according to the letter.

“As a result of these discussions and with the guidance of our legal counsel, our district will not be encouraging or condoning a walkout involving students exiting the building or leaving campus,” the letter read. “We feel that this type of demonstration would not only disrupt the educational program but would severely compromise our mission to ensure building security and student safety.”

In the letter, the district also informed parents that any student who leaves the building without authorization will be asked to return to class. Parents will be contacted if their children disregard the direction, and students who are disrespectful or disorderly will be subjected to the district’s code of conduct. The district could not be reached by deadline to confirm if any parents were called or any students were disrespectful or disorderly.

As an alternate to the March 14 walkout, the district offered voluntary activities for high school and junior high school students, according to the school district. A moment of silence was held at the high school and both junior high schools. A forum moderated by instructional staff and supervised by administrators was held in the Ward Melville auditorium for interested students to discuss issues connected to the #Enough movement. R.C. Murphy Junior High School students had the opportunity to write letters to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, and P.J. Gelinas junior high schoolers gathered in the gymnasium during fourth period to hear student government leaders read memoriam notes and listen to a brief music interlude.

The decision came a week after students interested in participating in a walkout sat with Principal Alan Baum to discuss their plans at a March 2 meeting. Both Owens and fellow organizers were optimistic after the meeting, but despite the students’ optimism, the district released a statement that read no plans were final after thatß meeting.

Students display the signs they created for National Walkout Day. Photo by Hannah Fondacaro

After the walkout, senior Hannah Fondacaro said it was energizing to participate in a peaceful protest.

“It felt amazing knowing that we are letting the MSD students know they’re not alone,” Fondacaro.

Samantha Restucci, 16, said she felt great after participating in the walkout. She said if adults refuse to fix the gun violence situation then it was up to young people to take action.

“It felt like I was a part of something — like I could do something important,” Restucci said. “It brought out a variety of emotions. I was angry for what happened but hopeful for what is to come. I hope this walkout wakes people up, and I hope that we are taken seriously.”

The morning of the walkout, parents received a message from Pedisich saying the administrative staff at the high school was notified about a social media posting that was a cause of concern. The student in question was immediately identified, removed from the school and the incident was reported to the Suffolk County Police Department, according to Pedisich’s message. It is unclear if the threat was related to the walkout.

“Please know that the district takes these matters very seriously and will investigate any suspicious act to the fullest extent possible,” Pedisich said. “I encourage you to take this opportunity to remind your child(ren) to be mindful when posting to social media. It is important that they understand a posting that they may make to be humorous can be viewed vastly different by another individual and/or misinterpreted to be dangerous.”

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There is no denying the Florida school shooting has reignited a national discussion on appropriate firearm regulations and mental health issues. Amid the uproar, students are organizing in attempt to make their voices heard — and we firmly believe they deserve to be at the forefront of this conversation.

The Women’s March Youth EMPOWER has put out the call for students, teachers, school administrators and parents to participate in a national school walkout Wednesday, March 14, at 10 a.m. The event calls for students to walk outside of their school building for 17 minutes, one minute for each of victims killed in Parkland, in a unified effort to show students demand action from Congress in passing federal gun regulations.

Commack resident Paul Guttenberg, whose niece Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, voiced support for the student walkout.

“It keeps the issue of how high school students feel about gun violence in the news, and will also send the message that our children’s voices do count,” he said. “And the tone-deaf GOP politicians in Congress will be forced to listen to how they feel.”

The reaction of Long Island’s school districts to the walkout wildly varies and, in some cases, is disappointing. We applaud Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum for sitting down with student organizers in his district to discuss plans and ensure safety.

If the point of education is to prepare our children for life, and to become civic-minded adults, Baum’s action should serve as an example for other districts.

Brenden Cusack, principal at Huntington High School, has used the walkout as an opportunity to arrange a March 13 forum where students, teachers and the community can engage in respectful dialogue on mass shootings.

It is disappointing that other districts like Rocky Point have issued warnings that administrative action will be taken in response to any student participating in the walkout. The event is an effort to cry out for attention, where the district’s planned moment of silence is just that, silence, and a letter-writing campaign is too easily ignored. This decision by school administrators strangles students’ voices, making someone think twice before expressing an opinion.

Worse are those school officials who have decided to bury their heads in the sand and not publicly address the walkout. Elwood and Harborfields have not yet issued public statements regarding how their districts will handle the event. This leaves both students and parents with numerous unanswered questions. With a little less than a week until walkout day, we strongly encourage school officials to reconsider an open and honest dialogue.

The first step to solving a problem starts with discussion of the issues. Students have every right to be heard, for it’s their safety at risk.

A student-led movement calling for gun control legislation has reached Port Jefferson. Stock photo

The gun control debate in the United States has been fully underway seemingly for decades. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead, the debate has taken on a different tone, and thanks to the activism of survivors, many of whom are high school students, the conversation hasn’t yet retreated to the back burner even a few news cycles removed from the shooting. In fact, the MSD students have ensured their cause will be garnering attention through at least April 20.

Two nationwide student walkouts have been planned and are being promoted on social media.

On March 14, the group Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators and parents to walk out of schools for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 Parkland victims,
beginning at 10 a.m. The purpose of the protest, according to a website promoting it, is to shine a light on Congress’ “inaction to do more than Tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.” The walkout is being promoted on social media using the hashtag #ENOUGH.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful.”

— Paul Casciano

On April 20, a similar protest is being planned to coincide with the anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The organizers of this event, simply called National School Walkout, are also calling for those in school buildings to stand up and exit at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes of silence, followed by an “open mic” session in which students will be encouraged to voice opinions. The organizers of this walkout envision a day-long event concluding at the end of the school day.

“We’re protesting the violence in schools and the lack of change that has occurred to stop that,” the website created for the event says. “This issue needs constant attention if we hope to change anything, so multiple events on multiple days is a productive way to help fight for our cause, a safer country.”

Local school districts and students are addressing if or how the marches might play out here, with logistics and safety being of the utmost concern for administrators.

In Port Jefferson School District, administration is taking a hands-on approach in handling a potential protest. Superintendent Paul Casciano said the district’s principals are working with students and teachers to finalize plans.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful,” he said. He added that when plans are established the district will make them public to ensure parents are informed about what might take place.

Ben Zaltsman, student body president at Port Jefferson High School, shared details about plans for protest, which will take on a tone meant to honor victims rather than a political message. He said initially students expressed a desire to walk out among themselves, but that administration found out and was concerned about safety hazards associated with leaving the building. Instead of a walkout, the district and student
government got together to formulate a plan to commemorate the day and participate in the national movement.

“Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

— Ben Zaltsman

Zaltsman, who’s heading to Rice University in the fall, said he and the rest of the high school’s student government met with administration and agreed on a 17-minute ceremony in the auditorium March 14.

“The April one seems like it’s more political — this is to honor and remember Parkland victims,” Zaltsman said of the two rallies. He said he’s not sure how many students might participate in the voluntary demonstration, which will take place during fourth period, but he expects it will be many. He also said it’s possible students will decide to walkout on their own anyway, but that he hadn’t heard of anyone planning to do so.

“My mom said she knew I was already participating and I have a younger brother who is expected to participate too,” Zaltsman said when asked if he’d discussed walking out with his parents. “Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

Comsewogue School District Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said in an email students were working on organizing a demonstration, though the district did not provide specifics in time for print.

Parents in the district have strong opinions on the idea of their kids participating in a political protest
during school hours in a discussion on a Facebook page comprised of Comsewogue community members.

“Instead of walking out and protesting, walk into the cafeteria and talk to kids you normally wouldn’t,” poster Caitlin Mae, a district employee, said while expressing skepticism that a walkout would accomplish much. “Befriend those who don’t have friends. Scold those students who encourage bullying.”

Jessica Glass, the mother of a junior at the high school, said she had discussed the possibility of walking out with her daughter.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way.”

— Rachel Begley

“She feels very strongly about reform and is interested in all the aspects of how to bring it about,” she said. “Is gun reform the answer? Is mental health awareness the answer? Is more teacher/parent awareness of students the answer? Is a walk out the best idea? She doesn’t have the answer, but she feels that students in a movement would bring awareness to an issue on a higher level than the awareness is now. That’s what’s important to her, raising awareness in many ways for change.”

Several others said they viewed students walking out of school at a set date and time as a security concern in and of itself.

“We are all worried about security, I don’t think a walkout is such a good idea,” Edward Garboski said. “By doing so we are allowing our kids to become perfect targets. I would hope our parents see the same thing I see. My kids will not walk out of school.”

Others applauded the idea of students being politically and civically engaged.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way,” Rachel Begley said. “They don’t have a vote, so this is one way of making themselves seen and heard.”

While the federal government deals with the political gridlock long associated with gun control, New York is working on action to at least improve safety in the short term, though not to address gun laws.

“Every New Yorker and every American is outraged by the senseless violence that is occurring in schools throughout the country,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement Feb. 28. The state Senate approved a series of bills March 5 that include more funding for security cameras, armed police officers or security personnel for districts that want it, panic buttons, active shooter drills, better emergency response plans, hardening of school doors and more. A package of gun control measures proposed by Senate Democrats was rejected.

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