JERSEY SHORE – It is said that everyone grieves differently. And everyone processes tragedy differently, too.
Across the country, students organized to walk out on the one month anniversary of the shooting that claimed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Locally, each school had a different approach to the walkouts. With several people arrested recently for posting threats on social media – even if they weren’t credible threats – school officials spoke about providing ways for students to express themselves without being left vulnerable to the same kind of attack that they were gathering in remembrance of.
Michael Dillon, the director of guidance and operations for the Freehold Regional School District, said that they didn’t want students to walk out of class but respected their freedom of expression. It was a security concern, so additional police were on hand.
“It’s harder to protect students on a football field rather than inside a brick building,” he said. Still, students weren’t going to be penalized as long as they participated in an event instead of just leaving campus.
Instead, students were urged to make their voices heard in ways that won’t affect class, such as writing to lawmakers or contacting survivors of the Parkland attacks. Some are going to visit a local congressman.
At Central Regional in Berkeley, the middle school and high school each had events, Superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides said. He joined the middle school walkout, with about 120 students
“We kept them in a safe area for the 17 minutes. A student read the bio of the 17 people killed,” he said.
At the high school, there were about 100 students, he said. Additional officers were sent in to cover security, and he thanked Chief Karin DiMichele and Mayor Carmen Amato for their support.
“Chief DiMichele did an amazing job and is a tremendous asset to the school and community,” he said.
Brick Township schools sent out a joint letter from the principals of the high schools stating that, due to safety reasons, the district and the police department decided not to participate in walkouts.
Instead, a moment of silence was scheduled. The district also scheduled a Town Hall-styled meeting where students will be able to make comments, and ask questions of school and municipal officials. This will be filmed and broadcast online.
“Our role as educators is to teach our students how to actively engage in civic conversations and the importance of participating respectfully and responsibly in a call to action to voice their concern,” the letter stated.
John Fiorentino, principal at Russell O. Brackman Middle School in Barnegat, wrote a letter to parents addressing the safety of students during the highly publicized national walkouts.
“Barnegat administration values student voice and civic engagement, therefore, this is something we need to let them participate in without consequence,” he wrote.
Any event outside the building would be considered unsafe and would not be permitted, he said. Instead, a moment of silence and a reading of the names was going to be had. Students were also encouraged to perform 17 random acts of kindness.
“Wednesday is a day to “Walk Up – Not Out,” he wrote. “We are encouraging students to walk up; walk up to the kid who sits alone at lunch and invite him to your group; walk up to the kid who sits quietly in the corner of the room and sit next to her, smile and say “Hi;” walk up to someone who has different views than you and get to know them.”
Students were encouraged to share their #WalkUpNotOut moments on Twitter, and told that they would be supported as long as they didn’t advocate a political position of any kind.
Toms River Regional Schools also grappled with how to handle walkouts in a situation that could potentially put children in harm’s way. They published a press release detailing security guidelines set out by the State Commissioner of Education and the New Jersey School Boards Association.
“Conversations between high school staff and students have included making sure any event would not be disruptive or violate district policies. Schools will follow established protocols regarding student attendance and behavior, and students will neither be required to nor denied the opportunity to peacefully participate in any activity established for that period,” the release stated. “Many teachers see this as an opportunity for learning and to promote student voice, an essential part of the school curriculum. School counselors have been especially mindful of student concerns and are “first responders” when it comes to mental health.”
A prayer service was held at Donovan Catholic High School in Toms River. It included a student-led prayer, a skit of a father and daughter reunited after the shootings, and an original song.
It also included a call to action for gun control legislation and mental health reform, and a reaffirmation in the power of prayer. The names of the 17 lives lost were read, and a candle was lit for each.