MANAHAWKIN – Southern Regional High School senior, Laura Esposito, began the memorialization by noting, “It’s a beautiful thing that we’re all assembled together here like this.”
She spoke to a crowd of hundreds of Southern Regional students that came together on the front lawn of the 11/12 building to spend 17 minutes honoring the victims of the shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. The walkout took place one week after the shooting.
The students formed the walkout for 12 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21. Esposito and fellow student Kyra Zdep were the organizers of this event, compiling intimate information on each of the victims, making signs, and spreading the world to other students. They did this all over the course of less than two days.
“It was really spontaneous,” said Zdep, noting that she and Esposito began planning the walkout only yesterday.
What began as a movement with an expectation of about 25 attendees became a huge event that included hundreds of students and numerous teachers, she said.
Esposito and Zdep took turns reciting information about the individuals victimized in Parkland. Reading from a paper, the girls spoke the names of each victim, what clubs, groups, or sports they were involved in at Stoneman Douglas, and quoted family and friends’ words of kindness.
Following the introduction to each person lost, they requested everyone bow their heads in a moment of silence for that person.
“I wanted to make sure I got the most information on each person,” said Zdep.
“People our age should never have to deal with this,” said Esposito. She noted that the shooting struck very close to home when she heard about it, reminding her that she and her friends at Southern Regional could have just as easily been victims.
Finding similarities among the victims in some of her own acquaintances at school, Esposito and Zdep expressed great concern over the state of safety in our schools today.
“If we don’t make a change, then I don’t know who will,” said Zdep.
“If you want something done, you have to do it yourself,” said Esposito.
That is exactly what these two students did. Zdep noted that she is a big activist and would want to participate in the walkouts that are planned to occur throughout March at other schools. She explained that the walkout was not about gun violence but rather to honor the memories of those lost in the shooting.
And there was no shortage of support for Esposito and Zdep’s initiative as students carried signs expressing their concern over the state of our schools. Students stood in a half-circle formation, displaying signs that read “It must end with Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School,” “Gone but never 4gotten,” “Enough is enough #neveragain,” and “Let us work together for peace & unity.”
A number of teachers also joined in the walkout, signaling their support for the cause. They stood amongst their classes and along the edges of the crowd, bowing their heads in silence with the students.
Principal Eric Wilhelm did not join students and staff in the walkout, but remained in his office that overlooks the front lawn of the 11/12 building, watching from indoors. He noted that he has a few other hundred students to look out for that chose not to walk outside.
“We don’t try to curtail our students’ ability to make a statement,” he said.
Wilhelm said that none of the students would be penalized for leaving during class time to host a memorial, but rather he made sure all of the teachers were on board with the event. Emailing all of the staff early this morning, he made sure that all teachers permitted their students to leave class for the walkout, noting that each student that left was still responsible for his or her classwork.
“We want to make sure that our kids are able to protest or honor in a safe environment,” he said.
None of the staff were involved in the organization of the walkout; it was completely produced by the students. “I can’t take credit for it,” he said.
Students across the way at Southern Regional Middle School even participated in the walkout, gathering on the front lawn that faces the lawn of the 11/12 building. Zdep noted that her younger sister attends the middle school as a 7th grade student.
“I don’t know that there’s ever anything that is done halfway here (at SRHS),” said Wilhelm, noting his pride for his students and their ability to mobilize in a positive way.
He noted that the students are sort of indoctrinated into doing the right thing and that they take immense pride in each other and in their school. This walkout was most certainly an example of that.
“I challenge you to look around,” said Esposito as the end of the 17 minutes. She challenged her classmates to make more change for the better, just as they had done that afternoon.