One month after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz carried out the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killing 17 people, thousands of students walked out of their classrooms the #Enough! National School Walkout to raise awareness and protest issues of school safety and the impact of gun violence.
The nationwide march began at 10 a.m. and lasted 17 minutes: one minute for each life lost on Feb. 14. Students at both New Paltz Central High School and SUNY New Paltz participated in the walkout.
As students gathered on the curb outside the high school chanting “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! This gun violence has got to go,” senior Caleb Sheedy took the mic and gathered everyone’s attention.
After a poetry reading by junior Lianna Maley, Sheedy said that the walkout was not for the 17 victims of the Florida shooting alone, but for all those who lost their lives in school shootings, citing tragedies from Columbine to Sandy Hook. Sheedy read aloud the names of each victim and then asked the school to observe a moment of silence.
“I also want to put one more name out there: Courtlin Arrington, the 18-year-old who died last Wednesday at Huffman High School when she was shot at her school in Alabama,” he said. “She was on track to graduate in May, and go to college where she would become a nurse. She had an entire future ahead of her. All the victims of Parkland did too, but their lives were taken too soon by someone with a gun.”
There have been 14 school shootings in the United States this year alone. Since the Parkland shooting, every state has at least discussed gun control legislation. Sheedy said that assault rifles have been the weapon of choice for countless mass shooters which were previously banned in the United States. Congress did not renew that ban in 2004.
It’s been over 200 years since the second amendment was put in place. Since then, gun technology has changed tremendously, but our laws haven’t,” Sheedy said. “Why are civilians legally allowed to own weapons of war, designed by the military, with the sole purpose of killing large amounts of people?”
In 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 wounded in the Port Arthur massacre in Australia. Port Arthur is a former prison colony and popular tourist site in south-eastern Tasmania, Australia. This shooting was the deadliest in Australian history and among the most notable in global history.
Just 12 days after the tragedy, the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, introduced strict gun control laws within Australia. He formulated the National Firearms Programme Implementation Act 1996, restricting the private ownership of semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns as well as introducing uniform firearms licensing. The country has not seen a mass shooting since.
“What are we waiting for? This is the wake-up call,” Sheedy said. “Things need to change now.”
Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida’s school safety measure into law last week which will hire more school resource officers, improve security in schools, increase waiting periods on shotgun and rifle purchases, grant more powers to police to seize weapons from people who are deemed dangerous and raise the age to legally purchase a firearm from 18 to 21.
Additionally, President Donald Trump is creating a federal commission on school safety to be chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who will study school violence and come up with other policy recommendations. He is also promoting STOP School Violence, a bill dedicated to training for students, teachers and school officials to identify signs of potential violence and intervene early; the bill will be voted on next week.
Sheedy however stated that the country’s changes have been, thus far, inadequate. He said that bulletproof backpacks and security precautions are not enough.
“We need to change not only how this country thinks, but how it functions,” he said. “I understand that this can seem like a Democrat vs. Republican issue, but this is life or death.”
Later that afternoon Sheedy, along with psychology professor and founding member of Move Forward New York Glenn Geher, President Beth Wilson of the New Paltz chapter of United University Professions, SUNY New Paltz student Ellie Condelles, Mary Fervent of Peace Action and Debra Gregg Clinton, Founder of Move Forward New York addressed students and faculty gathered on the concourse outside the Jacobson Faculty Tower and Humanities.
The event was co-sponsored by several entities including, for the first time in school history at a protest according to Geher, the administration of the State University of New York at New Paltz.
“I’m tired of looking at charts showing that deaths resulting from gun violence in the United States are off the scale compared to any nation in the developed world,” Geher said. “I don’t want to live in a place where 30,000 people die from gun violence each year.”
Geher said that his generation has failed ours in that students must live with the fear of facing an active shooter upon going to school. However, he added that he has hope in the future generation of leaders he sees every day at New Paltz and across the country.
“When I think of New Paltz Central High School senior Caleb Sheedy speaking to the Board of Education about the importance of today’s walkout, I have hope,” he said. “When I think of Emma Gonzalez of Parkland, Florida who put a United State Senator in his place in front of the world, I have hope.”
Gonzalez is a high school senior who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February. She has since become an activist and advocate for gun control, co-founding the gun-control advocacy group Never Again MSD and drawing national attention after a speech she gave at a rally against gun violence went viral.
Condelles scoffed at politicians offering their prayers and thoughts in the wake of violence and said that we need policy and change. She apologized to victims of gun violence for all the suffering they have endured and assured them that they are not alone in this fight.
“Together, we will create the America we want,” she said. “We are the change that we have been waiting for.”
Wilson said that the thousands of students who walked out of their classrooms today to demand change is only the beginning. She added that gun control is only a part of the problem and that we as a society must change in order to bring an end to this senseless tragedy.
“I call on us all to pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she said.