Students at West Hartford’s Conard and Hall high schools, as well as the middle schools, held a 17-minute walkout Wednesday morning as part of a national student-led campaign to end school violence.
By Ronni Newton
On a chilly Wednesday morning, more than half of Conard High School’s 1,400 students stood in front of the school, listening as their peers gave speeches, cheered, and sang “We Shall Overcome” in support of the National Student Walkout Against School Violence, an event taking place in schools throughout the country on March 14.
The length of the event – 17 minutes – was significant. The student-led movement was also a tribute to the 17 people who lost their lives in Parkland, FL, exactly a month ago, a way to stand up and be the voice for those who no longer have a voice. The 17 names were read aloud during the walkout, a somber ringing of a bell punctuating the space between each one.
“We heard that it was going to be a national event, and we thought we definitely wanted to take part,” Conard senior Sophia Gruber, one of the organizers, said in a phone interview on Tuesday about the planning for the event. Committee members also included senior Jenna Westfall, freshman Chloe Starr, junior Arthur Couch, junior Cheyanne Parker, and senior Kishan Kunver.
“A lot of people feel really strongly about not just restricting gun laws, but making sure nothing like this ever happens again,” Gruber said. “The senseless gun violence is not just in schools.”
“It went the best it could have,” Starr said after the event. “Lots of kids, lots of chaos. We went out and showed our support.”
Kunver said he was stationed at the front doors of the school in advance so he could video the event. He watched as the students congregated in the lobby to head outside, and said that there was a throng of students as far as he could see.
“It was insane, just wonderful,” Kunver said.
Starr said that many students purchased an orange shirt emblazoned with the words: “Protect kids not guns. #NATIONALWALKOUT.” Student Maeve D’Arcy ordered the shirts, and the $250 raised from their sale are being donated to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, where the 17 were killed on Feb. 14. Students were all given orange bracelets to wear at the walkout.
There were 370 Conard students who officially signed up for the walkout, but Principal Julio Duarte said that ultimately it seemed that closer to 750 participated.
In a speech at the event, the text of which was shared with We-Ha.com, Student Council President Victoria Pham, a senior, told students that “enough is enough” and shared the following message: “We no longer will accept the gun violence going on in this country, and especially in schools. We are tired of hearing about ‘thoughts and prayers.’ We want Congress to listen in, to pay attention to what is going on in the real world, the thinks that occur outside of their office buildings. We want Congress to pass a federal gun reform legislation because schools no longer feel safe.”
The students are the “voices of the future” Pham said in her speech, the generation that will next be sitting in office and taking a stance.
“It’s all in the next generation,” said Westfall, who led the committee that organized the walkout at Conard.
Gruber said she registered to vote as soon as she turned 18. “We’ll vote them out. We have the power to make that change,” she said after the walkout.
Starr noted that it was great to see students from all grades participating, freshmen as well as seniors. “We’re mature enough to know. We’re old enough to do something.”
Students know “this could happen to you,” Westfall said.
“It’s important that younger kids know they can make a difference,” Gruber said. “We need to stop this from happening.”
The administration was aware well in advance that the walkout was going to take place on Wednesday. “Student leaders at Conard have met with the administration to make us aware that they intend to participate in this movement as a show of support to end school violence,” Duarte wrote in a letter last week notifying parents and guardians that there were plans for a walkout at Conard.
“Giving students a voice and the ability to express themselves is a hallmark of great schools. While this is not a school sponsored event, we appreciate our students’ leadership and desire to demonstrate their dedication to end violence in our schools in a mature and responsible manner,” Duarte wrote in the letter.
An identical letter was sent out at Hall High School, and neither school permitted press, parents, or other adults not connected with the school to be on the campus during the walkout to ensure student safety. West Hartford Police provided extra security. “While we encourage their activism and voice, our responsibility is also to create and maintain a safe school,” the letter stated.
Teachers were required to remain in their classrooms with the students who were not participating, but held their own event before the beginning of the school day. David Dippolino, a Conard teacher who is also vice president of the West Hartford Education Association, said that about 40 teachers participated in a walk-in from 7-7:17 a.m. on Wednesday. Assistant Attorney General and attorney general candidate Clare Kindall addressed the group, Dippolino said, and they then locked arms in solidarity and observed a period of silence before entering the school for the start of the day, which begins at 7:30 a.m.
During the walkout, a group of parents, Conard alumni, and neighbors stood across the street from Conard, holding signs that read “We Support Our Youth. #Enough.”
Chris Sesta, the mother of Conard walkout organizer Jenna Westfall, was holding one of the signs. She said she respected that Wednesday’s walkout was all about the youth and was fine with being outside of the school grounds. “We’re excited that the youth is doing this,” she said.
Ariella Alroy said she has a kindergartner who attends West Hartford Public Schools and a 2-year-old. “I firmly believe that it’s not the job of small children to prepare for their own massacres.”
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!