Across the Berkshires, students walk out for school safety

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The Berkshire Eagle

It was another cold, snowy day in Berkshire County, but young activists were undeterred as they walked out of school in solidarity with those around the country who are calling for an end to violence in schools.

"I'm really excited to see who comes out in the snow," said Makailey Cookis, a senior at Pittsfield High School who organized a rally at Park Square. "Those are the people I want to be with, the passionate ones." 

Students from across Berkshire County participated in a national school walkout, leaving class in solidarity and demanding stricter gun laws one month after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. 

In addition to a 17-minute walkout at Pittsfield High School, Cookis and several others organized an after-school rally as a way to involve even more people. Nearly three dozen hardy students, teachers and residents stood beside her, demanding change.

"It's a good way to bring the community together," Cookis said. 

Cookis said she and other organizers used Facebook as a tool to get the word out, but also talked about it in school and at an assembly. Pittsfield High School administrators were supportive of their efforts, and allowed the students to make it their own with little interference, she said. 

As for what prompted the unprecedented solidarity after the most recent school shooting over the many others, Cookis said she thinks it's the timing and the sheer number of lives taken that day. 

"After this, we are sick of it," she said. "We can't allow this." 

In response to students walking out in support of gun law reform, some opponents have argued that the young men and women should "walk up" to students who are bullied, or who feel isolated, in school, instead of walking out of class. 

"We do walk up. We walk up every single day," Cookis said. "It's just not broadcasted like this." 

Cookis said that school bullying is a "prominent" issue, and might even deserve its own rally, but that's not what Wednesday was about. 

Virginia O'Leary, a 74-year-old retired college professor and social psychologist, has seen, and participated in, a lot of gun reform advocacy in her life.

On Wednesday, while surrounded by students bundled in thick coats and carrying signs, O'Leary said she is "cautiously optimistic" that their efforts will bring real reform. 

"Something has changed," she said. "I think it's the younger people getting out in front."

The older generation is here to support them, but not to interfere, O'Leary said. 

"This is their thing, and that's why things are changing," she said.

Claudia Cass of Pittsfield said she teaches kindergarten and first grade in several towns in upstate New York and Lenox, and is worried about what active shooter drills are doing to students psychologically.

"The kids get it, but they're terrified," she said at the Park Square rally. "They're afraid of their light-up sneakers and of fire alarms."

As drivers of cars and trucks honked their horns in support of the movement, Kamea Guetti, another Pittsfield High School senior who organized the event, addressed the crowd of more than 30 students and supporters.

"Feeling safe in school is a right that we're not willing to compromise," she said. "This movement is not a trend that we're going to get tired of supporting." 

Mayor Linda Tyer and state Sen. Adam Hinds spoke briefly at the rally.

"I want you to know that I stand with you and for you," Tyer said. "There is nothing that can't be done with a small group of people and a powerful message." 

A majority of the students who came to the Park Square rally Wednesday were young women, but the turnout at the school walkout Wednesday morning was more diverse, Cookis assured.

A small group of boisterous young men from Lenox High School stood with signs, chanting at passing cars. 

"In my opinion, women put themselves out there more," said Lenox senior Evan Silverstein. "They have to live in a world that is tougher." 

Noah Hochfelder, another senior at Lenox, questioned whether the lack of young men at the rally would be a "wake-up call" for them to get more involved in the movement.

— Haven Orecchio-Egresitz 

Drury High School, North Adams

School administrators suggested that the student walkout be held in the Drury High School gymnasium. 

But students had other plans. 

Seeking greater visibility, dozens of students walked outside the school's front entrance at 10 a.m. to protest gun violence and advocate for gun control. 

"Having this in the gym would take away from the meaning of the protest," said organizer and Drury High School junior Connor Kelly. 

"I don't want anyone to think that just because we're up in the mountains that we don't care about what's going on in other places and the country," said Aisha Gardner, a Drury High School senior who helped organize the walkout. 

Students held signs displaying messages like "Drury stands with Marjory Stoneman Douglas" and "every student should be safe."

"We want to stand in support as students, as leaders, as humans in general," Gardner told The Eagle. "We feel the pain of losing someone, we feel the pain of not feeling safe."

Kelly said he was inspired to participate when he heard about the movement during February winter recess. Organizing efforts in recent weeks included making flyers — which, he said, he was eventually told he could not use school resources to produce. 

On Wednesday, Kelly felt that the event was "hugely successful."

"I was absolutely amazed at the sheer mass of people that showed," Kelly said. 

Superintendent Barbara Malkas was not present at the walkout, but administrators reported that it was "very respectful, very organized," she said. The students were all back in class before 10:30 a.m. 

She said administrators suggested the use of the gymnasium out of security concerns and because of the weather. 

"The students felt strongly that the event, in order to have impact, needed to be a true walkout, as opposed to a walk-in at the gym," Malkas said. 

There is no expectation of disciplinary action, Malkas added. 

"I am very proud of our student organizers and their interaction with administration," she said. "I am also proud of how our students comported themselves."

As promised, Mayor Thomas Bernard attended the walkout and said he thought "it was handled well by the students."

"It gave the students an opportunity to make their voices heard, to connect with activism across the country," he said. "I thought they were passionate, thoughtful, and it kind of followed the model that the administration had given to the students."

Kelly is confident that the nationwide walkout will have an impact on legislators. 

"I think that finally the students here and nationwide are finally the majority and not the minority, and I feel today proves that we do have a voice," he said. "We are serious, and we will not stop until something has changed."

— Adam Shanks, Caroline Bonnivier Snyder

Lee Middle and High School

Alyssa Alhadeff. Scott Beigel. Nicholas Dworet. Jamie Guttenberg.

Olivia Sands would eventually read all 17 names of the 14 students and three school staff gunned down four weeks ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Sands, a junior, called on Lee Middle and High School students, staff and the rest of America to focus more on the victims and less on the gunman.

"The victims are often left only to be remembered by family and friends while the shooter, dead or alive, is remembered in infamy," she said.

Sands spoke as Lee, along with schools across the country, joined in the national protest for more gun control and called on adults to make schools safer.

The event was held in the school auditorium because of the weather, and nearly the entire student body sat quietly and attentively as the event coordinator, senior Iris Courchaine, led several student speakers in calling for not only gun control, but the need to address those individuals who might be a threat to others and themselves.

Courchaine urged the potential future electorate to register to vote when they turn 18, and pay close attention to those candidates who don't support gun control, when they go to the polls this fall and in 2020 — the next presidential election.

"If people keep ignoring us, we'll get rid of them," she said.

Senior Mikayla DeSantis said the debate should go beyond what weapons are sold, to include stronger mental health care and preventing people from making destructive decisions.

"I'm here to make sure the conversation is not just about gun control," she said. "When we see an accident, we don't blame the vehicle or alcohol [if involved.]"

The student speakers praised Lee Middle and High School for being proactive in keeping them safe, but more can be done.

While the call for tougher gun laws has followed deadly school shootings that preceded Parkland, the Feb. 14 carnage struck a nerve with sophomore Olivia Keiderling.

"I felt, for the first time, deep loss," she said. "Take a moment to appreciate life; you only have one."

— Dick Lindsay

Lenox Memorial Middle and High School

For 17 minutes, as the sun broke through a haze of gently falling snowflakes, hundreds of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School students stood silently and solemnly to honor the 17 victims killed in Parkland.

The students and some staff members bowed their heads during six minutes of silence — the duration of the massacre — as junior Adam Puntin slowly read the names of the 14 students and three staffers who lost their lives.

It was precisely 10 a.m. as students walked out to the parking lot, filing quietly from the main entrance to hear nine of their classmates, as well as state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a Lenox graduate, pay tribute to the Parkland victims and call for action to curb gun violence.

"Words will never be able to truly express the loss that has been felt by so many friends and families connected to the victims of this tragedy," said freshman Harrison Keator. "We have an obligation to join the movement against gun violence out of respect for those who died in Parkland and to prevent this from ever happening again."

As sophomore Josie Usow, a student council member who helped organize the event, put it: "It is time for our generation to be the change we wish to see. We cannot underestimate the power of our voices. We are criticized for being superficial and technology-obsessed, yet today, millions of students across our country stand united to demand positive action."

"This national movement proves that the youth of America are rising up and taking matters into their own hands," she added.

Members of Congress who accept campaign money from the National Rifle Association were called out by senior Noah Hochfelder, who told the crowd that those politicians "are more invested in having money for re-election than in protecting us."

Co-organizer and student council member Julie Monteleone, a sophomore, declared that "we want Congress to understand we will not be silenced. Many of us will be able to vote in November, and more will join them in 2020. If we speak up and join together, we can be the generation to effect change."

About 200 to 220 students, half of the school enrollment, took part in the walkout, according to an estimate by Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell.

Pignatelli told the students: "I am so proud of each and every one of you. ... Don't think for a second that you're not making a difference here today. ... You guys are the rock stars, the future leaders of this school, this state and this country. Don't take this day for granted. It's 17 short minutes for a lifetime of change."

"You're taking a stand, you're lending your voice to 17 people who no longer have a voice," he told the students, "people like you who went to school one day to learn, to meet their friends, to have fun, who never went home. Think about their parents, think about the changes we need to make, not only in this state, but in this country."

Pignatelli, telling the students that they need to be safe going to school, called for universal background checks and mental health background checks, as well as federal action to prevent illegal guns from coming into Massachusetts, which has one of the strongest set of gun safety laws in the U.S.

"I always say to the law-abiding sportsmen here in the Berkshires: `If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to be afraid of,'" he added. "Agencies need to communicate across state lines so these tragic events never happen again."

After Puntin completed reading the names of the Parkland students and staffers who died in the Feb. 14 shooting, he urged students to continue to speak out strongly for change.

As they returned to class, schools Superintendent Timothy Lee said he was proud of the students for their participation in the national walkout and called it "a hopeful sign" that many of them would soon be eligible to vote.

— Clarence Fanto 

Berkshire Waldorf High SchoolStockbridge

Faculty chairman Stephen Sagarin sent this message with photos to The Eagle:

"As part of a national school walk-out, our entire student body held a 17 minute "die in" ... March 14, at 10 a.m. on the Stockbridge Library lawn. Students marched in silence from the school to the library, spread tarps on the snowy ground, and lay in silence for 17 minutes, one for each of the victims of the Parkland, FL, school shooting. Two students stood in silence, holding a sign that said "Fear has no place in schools." Witnesses from our faculty, staff, and board, and from the library's staff and board, were moved to tears. We are so proud of and moved by our students, and we wanted to share this with you.


Stephen Sagarin, Faculty Chair"

Reid Middle School, Pittsfield

The Reid Middle School community walked out Wednesday morning, led by 40 members of the student council. The school sent in a statement and photos of the demonstration.

"In spite of the frigid cold temperatures and gusts of wind, Reid Middle School students and faculty participated in the National School Walkout today," said Principal Linda Whitacre. "In anticipation of the walk out, we talked with students for the past several weeks about the importance of maintaining a safe learning environment and urged them develop a positive message that would benefit our own school community, which they did with thoughtfulness and compassion," she added. 

"Since the incident in Florida our students and their families have been genuinely interested and concerned." "I am so proud of our students today, and every day, for being interested in current affairs and wanting to take action," Whitacre said. "Following a moment of silence, several students delivered personal remarks and shared personal anecdotes."

Richmond Consolidated School

Middle school students participated in a forum in the cafeteria to discuss safety, then silently proceeded outside for a memorial, according to art teacher Kelly Kaiser.

"It was an incredibly moving experience," she said. "All of our students were clearly reflecting on what happened in Florida."

Students placed 17 roses, one by one, in the snow in the shape of a heart after each victim's name was read and observed a moment of silence.


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