This past Friday, nearly 100 Athens High School students left the school building. Seventeen minutes later, they walked back inside.
Their brief absence – staged as peaceful demonstration in support of common-sense gun control – was part of a larger, student-centric movement sparked by gun violence in U.S. schools.
Sophomore Nora Sullivan expressed this sentiment in a speech delivered to the students who walked out. “At this moment nationwide, thousands of students are assembling in their own stadiums with their own stories and their own rage. We stand in unity, and we stand in solidarity.”
Sophomore Mieke Riddlebarger and myself also delivered portions of the student-written speech, which placed particular emphasis on the importance of engaging in challenging, pertinent discourse with those on both sides of the gun-control debate. “Though we are motivated by fear, our movement is rooted in logic and reasoned argument,” Riddlebarger said. “It is imperative that we not drown out the voices of those whose ideals differ from ours; instead, we must seek to diffuse knowledge pertaining to the reality of gun violence.”
In my portion of the speech, I stressed the significance of embracing one’s ability to effect progressive and necessary change. “We are horrified, but we are not helpless… So long as we do not fall into apathy, so long as we do not become desensitized to atrocity, we are the precipitants of change, the architects of action. We are the driving force.”
While members of the student walkout committee sought to galvanize their peers, they also sought to address a prevailing misunderstanding of the common-sense gun control movement so as to mitigate potential backlash.
“While our cause is one founded in emotion and exasperation, it is essential that we remain eloquent so that our message not be misconstrued – in no way are we suggesting that all guns should be eradicated, and in no way are we infringing on our constitutional right to bear arms,” said Sullivan. She then paused, taking a moment to observe her audience. “Common-sense gun control is merely that – common sense.”
As April 20 – now dubbed National Walkout Day –was the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in a Denver suburb, sophomore Mary Myers elected to read the names of the 13 victims. Junior Masa Al-Azm read the names of the 17 victims of the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting before detailing the importance of “not becoming numb to numbers.”
After the last echoes of Al-Azm’s words had faded, Riddlebarger led the assembled students in one minute of silence, inviting them to pray and reflect. A chill spring breeze brushed over those gathered, and all stood quietly resolute with a sense of the gravity of their common purpose.
As the walkout concluded, participants were urged to call their elected legislators and demand common-sense gun control. Sophomore Julia Park held a sign bearing the contact information of U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers and state Rep. Jay Edwards, as well as U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (all of whom represent Athens County in their districts or jurisdiction).
Park, who – along with Riddlebarger – originally spoke to Assistant Principal Chad Springer and Principal David Hanning about organizing a walkout, agreed to cooperate as much as possible with the AHS administration. According to Park, the purpose of this demonstration was to bolster awareness of the need for common-sense gun legislation and to encourage student participation, not to subvert school authority. Park did take pains, however, to ensure any agreements did not compromise the meaning of the peaceful demonstration.
The administration, meanwhile, ensured that participating students were safe; shortly before the protest began, buses blocked the entrance to AHS, and several police officers were on the scene. To preserve the student-centric nature of the walkout, neither administration nor law enforcement entered the stadium.
All assembled were respectful to those speaking, and all felt – in the crisp, clear morning – the magnitude of the issue at hand.