PISCATAWAY, NJ – In a show of unity, students and school administrators gathered in Piscataway High School’s Performing Arts Center to pay tribute to the 17 students and staff members who were shot and killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Seventeen chairs lined the dimly lit stage, each adorned with a single star-shaped balloon and the flicker of a votive candle. And except for some tears, not a sound could be heard from those assembled.
As each victim’s name was read, representatives from the student body and from the Piscataway Police Department placed a single white rose on the chairs in remembrance of their lives.
“It is with heavy hearts that we as a nation have to say goodbye, to mourn the loss of the students and teachers who died during this tragic event,” said Isabella Caracta, a Senior at PHS. She said her idea to hold the observance instead of a student walk-out on the one-month anniversary of the Florida school shootings was well received by school administrators who helped plan the tribute along with school resource officers from the police department.
TAPinto Piscataway was exclusively invited to attend the Wednesday morning observance that began at 10:00 and was expected to last just 17 minutes, 1 minute for each of the 17 victims in accordance with guidelines suggested by the National School Walk-Out (#Enough) movement. But 17 minutes was not enough time for participants to express their emotions.
“Now more than ever, we need to allow students to have a platform to voice their discontent with current legislation regarding guns,” Caracta continued. “This is not something that we as students, parents or administrators should turn a blind eye to and hope that something like what happened at Parkland will not happen in Piscataway, New Jersey.”
“As a community it is empowering to see so many young people who are aware of the current gun control problem,” said Senior, Patricia Suan who read aloud the victims’ names, allowing almost a minute of silence in between. “Together we are able to spread awareness and make a change. We unify so no more innocent lives are taken by a single bullet. Everyone deserves to live free from fear, and fear does not belong in our schools.”
Suan made a plea to Piscataway administrators to keep the schools safe and never allow a school shooting again: “These innocent students will never be allowed to walk across a stage at graduation or experience the prom night we always wish for or go to their dream college. Your willingness to join us today shows the strength we have as a community.”
“I think the best way to put it is the silence is deafening,” Caracta later said about the tribute, expressing her appreciation to school administrators and the board of education that students were allowed to participate and have their voices heard. “It was moving and it was eye-opening to see those 17 empty chairs up there. It really made me feel like their needs not to be another tragedy like this.”
“It’s a pretty powerful statement to see 17 candles up here,” Principal Jason Lester told the assembly as he fought back his tears. “Everybody in this building is really important to me. These are things that keep your parents up at night. Teachers, your administrators, classmates…I need us to do what we know is right. Not just when people are looking, but all of the time.”
“The only way we can make change is to speak up and speak out for what we believe in,” said Caracta, who announced that members from Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s Central Jersey Alumnae Chapter were on hand in the school’s cafeteria at the end of the tribute to register eligible students to vote.
“Today, I want you to go out, especially if you’re 17 years or older, make sure you register (to vote),” said Lester. “Make sure you all do the right thing.”
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