BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Close to 200 students, parents and community members marched along the sidewalk on Garretson Road Sunday, holding signs reading “Arms are for Hugging,” “Protect Kids Not Guns” and the terrifyingly real “Am I Next?”.
With a goal of #NeverAgain, they took part in the first March for Our Lives to call for stricter gun laws, school security and mental health.
The march was held in the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and a national movement spearheaded by the survivors and taken on by students and communities around the country, in an effort to make sure it never happens again.
“There have been 18 school shootings in two months,” said Bridgewater-Raritan High School freshman Sia Limaye. “The students of Parkland decided they must make change, and it has inspired us to take action on gun control, school safety and mental health.”
Those participating in the march walked from the high school to the Bridgewater municipal building with their signs, and gathered together in front of the municipal building to hear from community members and students concerned about the issue of the safety of the students.
“I am here today to stand in sympathy and empathy for the victims of Parkland,” said Mayor Dan Hayes. “I can’t imagine the horror they had to endure.”
Hayes said he stands with the students and community members, in solidarity, to say they do not want this to happen again anywhere, and not in this community.
“We do not know why these things happen, or how we can prevent them,” he said. “But we can focus on the issues to put an effort into reducing the chances that it will happen in our area.”
“While we are informed of what has happened in our recent past, this is about our future,” he added. “I say to the students that you must stay involved, because it is your future we are planning. It is important that your views be said, and that you register to vote.”
One resident spoke out during Hayes’s speech to question his policy on gun control and the age people should be allowed to purchase assault weapons.
Hayes responded that he hasn’t yet thought about what age would be appropriate, before organizers reminded members of the community that this was meant to be a peaceful protest focusing on keeping the students safe, and not about current policies.
Parent Neha Pallod Limaye, who co-coordinated the march with parent Komal Sheth, said she is amazed at how quickly they were able to gather momentum on the movement and put the march together.
“It’s hard to believe that we only began this less than a month ago, and then we had over 200 people show up,” she said. “This is just the beginning, this was just a platform where the people of our community, especially the youth of today who will be the citizens of tomorrow, were able to speak up and share their thoughts.”
Limaye said the movement was initiated by the Parkland students, and the Bridgewater-Raritan community wanted to be part of it, kicking it off with the march.
“And what we witnessed at the march has only strengthened my belief further in the youth of today,”she said. “They are way more sensible and smart than what they get credit for. They are not about shallow thoughts and prayers, or the ones to engage in a blame game. What they want is a dialogue, a dialogue that will lead to better laws and reforms that will ensure a bipartisan solution on many of the hot button issues of today.”
Members of the BRHS community spoke to the crowd about their beliefs that thoughts and prayers from politicians is no longer acceptable, and change must be made now.
“The problem has become so drastic, but change is possible,” said freshman Vaani Aggarwal. “The first step is to control the distribution and use of guns.”
Niki Dawson – co-founder of Not In Our Town - Bridgewater/Raritan, a Facebook group which has more than 1,000 members and a mission to not let what happened in Parkland happen ever again – said the students in Parkland are fiercely brave in their efforts to make change.
“Rather than sit idly by, I am grateful and thankful for the support we have gotten,” she said. “Because of your support, it won’t happen in our town.”
Dawson said afterward that she was overwhelmed with the turnout.
“Moving forward, our committees and members will continue to focus on issues such as social isolation, mental health and school safety, and work with the administration to supplement programs and resources,” she said.
Dawson’s co-founder Adrienne Sorensen said the Facebook page has grown to include students, teachers, parents and other community members.
“This is the first step toward a movement, and there are great things in store,” she said.
Sorensen said the Student Empowerment Committee, created through the Facebook page, coordinated the march, and numbers will grow for future events.
For the future, Sorensen said, she is a member of the Social Emotional Development Committee, and is working with the district administration to figure out how programs like Starts with Hello can be implemented in the schools.
“This particular program focuses on isolation,” she said. “Students are empowered to reach out to those who may be chronically isolated, to let them know that they are valued and are not invisible.”
Raritan Borough Councilman Pablo Orozco spoke out at the march, which he attended with his wife and two kids.
“I have never seen such leadership from kids, and it’s inspiring,” he said. “That’s the key to finding the solution, an open dialogue. By opening the dialogue, that’s where the solutions can start.”
One resident implored the students not to get discouraged if the worst should happen again before change does, citing that this is just the beginning and they must persevere no matter what.
Senior Julia Brickfield led those in attendance in a special pledge to take action, to vote, to volunteer and to be informed.
“I am thrilled to see so many in my community coming together,” she said. “Making change can happen as easily as casting a vote.”
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” she added, citing the fact that by voting, the students can continue to get their message heard by officials and those in positions of leadership. “When it works, it works exceptionally well at bringing change.”
In reflecting on the march, Brickfield said she is proud to be a resident of Bridgewater after seeing the community coming together like it did.
“It was especially incredible to have such a turnout given that our town is represented by Republicans at nearly every level, which helps paint a very clear picture for what we need to do going forward,” she said. “At the high school, I hope to host not only voter registration events, but vote by mail registration events so students will be able to vote even when they’re away at college.”
“Increasing awareness in the community will be super important going into the midterm elections later this year,” she added.
Also part of the march were two prospective politicians hoping to unseat Rep. Leonard Lance, R-7, in November’s elections.
Tom Malinowski is running against Lance as a Democrat.
“You have more power than you can imagine,” he said to the students. “You guys did all of this in less than a month, and the facts are on your side. We have the lowest rates of gun violence in New Jersey.”
Malinowski said the students have parents on their side, veterans on their side who do not want to see assault rifles in the hands of civilians and police officers on their side.
“Guns should be regulated no less than driving a car or drinking,” he said. “If we all voted at a rate close to 100 percent, the issue would be solved.”
Lindsay Brown, who is running in the primary elections against Lance for the Republican nomination said the issue of guns is a bipartisan issue, and there needs to be more moderate voices in the party.
“A vast majority of Americans respect the second amendment, but we want universal background checks, sensible restrictions and age limits,” she said. “This requires everyone on both side of the aisle.”
BRHS freshman Aadhya Khanvilkar said she participated in the march because she believes they need to protect the lives of children all across the world.
“I believe that children should not fear going to school, or even wonder if they will be safe that day,” she said. “The march creates recognition for the very prominent issues in today’s world.”
By attending the march, Khanvilkar said, they can voice their opinions on gun reform and the importance of taking steps to ban those weapons.
“My hope for the future is one where children feel safe to speak their opinions without feeling threatened or intimidated,” she said. “I also hope for a future where children are not afraid to attend school and receive a basic education.”
Khanvilkar said it is astounding to see so many young people taking a stand.
“It is reassuring to know that future generations are aware of social injustices, and are also willing to take a stand,” she said.
Sia Limaye said she believes the march was a success, despite the freezing temperatures and it being Daylight Saving Time.
“It shows how passionate people are to make a change in the country,” she said. “While marching, I felt proud that I was doing something good for the nation. I was helping and supporting to make a difference in our society as a whole.”
And of course the next step, Limaye said, is the national walk-out planned for March 14, when students will walk out of class at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to honor the 17 people killed in the shooting in Parkland.
“I am also planning on going to New York or Washington D.C. on March 24 for another protest about gun control,” she said. “I hope that this movement continues to grow and grow until the whole country is involved.”
Freshman Siya Gupta said that speaking at the march was one of the proudest moments of her life.
“Gun regulation is important to me because I feel that I, along with everyone else, have the right to feel safe inside schools and other public places,” she said. “I don’t like feeling terrified whenever I turn on the news and watch a report of more lives being lost due to circumstances that could have been easily prevented.”
“I don’t understand how I can just stand by and see it happen and do nothing, so I decided to try and do my part to help bring awareness,” she added.
Neha Pallod Limaye said that for those who want to question why they are involving children in controversial political topics, when it comes to older high schoolers it is not the parents’ choices to make.
“These young teens have taken it upon themselves to get involved,” she said. “As for the little ones, it’s an unfortunate situation because our country is failing them, and they have been left with no choice but to get involved. If we are teaching them lockdown drills from kindergarten onwards, then it’s only natural for them to ask, ‘Am I next?’ That’s the sad reality we live in.”
Limaye said they are focused on the three honorary pledges, to get informed, offer support and speak up.
“We intend to make these our mantra as we work toward a safer community and school system,” she said.
Gupta said she believes the march went well because they worked hard to make the issue a topic of discussion.
“We showed that we are here and we won’t be silent about this any longer,” she said, adding that she will also be part of the walk-out March 14. “Being part of this has been such an amazing experience, and I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to do so and speak in front of such a large crowd.”
“Having my ideas being expressed and heard instead of being shut down because ‘I’m only 15,’ has been a truly unique experience that has really opened my eyes to the ability I have to make a difference,” she added.