SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – In the wake of last week’s tragic school shooting in Florida, students from across the country – including right here in South Plainfield – are joining together for change.
On Feb. 16, the non-profit organization Women’s March launched a Youth EMPOWER movement calling for a national school walkout and publicizing the event on social media with the hashtags #NationalSchoolWalkout and #ENOUGH. A quick click on the organization's Facebook post and a zip code search finds SPHS as on of the participating New Jersey schools and lists student Tala Abdeljaber as the organizer; TAPinto South Plainfield's request for comment from Abdeljaber, sent via Facebook messenger, was not answered as of press time.
According to the Women's March Youth EMPOWER Facebook post, the walkout, which is scheduled to take place next month, is an effort to demand Congress do more to prevent gun violence in the United States'
“Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and allies to take part in a National School Walkout…. to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” states the organization’s Facebook post. “We need action. Students and allies are organizing the national school walkout to demand Congress pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”
As of press time, SPHS students, along with students in neighboring districts such as Westfield and Scotch Plains-Fanwood, will walkout on Wednesday, March 14 – the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, FL shooting. The walkout is planned for 10 a.m. – across every time zone – and scheduled to last 17 minutes – one minute for each of the victims tragically killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.
“Students and staff have the right to learn and teach in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms or on their way home from school. Parents have the right to send their kids to school in the mornings and see them home alive at the end of the day,” states the organization. “We are not safe at school. We are not safe in our cities and towns. Congress must take meaningful action to keep us safe and pass federal gun reform legislation that address the public health crisis of gun violence. We want Congress to pay attention and take note…”
With news of the walkout circulating on social media, residents took to the 'We are South Plainfield' Facebook page to weigh in.
“The stance is greater than SPHS... [T]his is a national stance for children... All children to not only feel safe, but be safe in school. For voices to be heard... ” Sonali Ess stated on the ‘We are South Plainfield’ Facebook page. “These kids are asking adults for help, for change, for their voices to be heard, to be allowed to be kids, to be able to just go to school and learn.”
“The goal of this walkout is to illustrate that very point – America’s students are not safe in school, immediately outside the building, or anywhere near one,” stated Jess Ardis on the social media site.
Amber Hand posted, “Of course our kids shouldn't have to do this but they also shouldn't be murdered in their classrooms. Good [for] every kid and teacher who participates in this!” She went on to later state, "I keep seeing the very dismissive and ignorant phrase 'this won't solve anything' repeated over and over again and the problem with that is it is far from the truth. Protests have been how our country was built and shaped..."
"If my child was in the high school I would applaud their decision to stand up for what they believe in. Defiance is what made up a good part of our country's history...It's defiance that makes change, and 17 minutes of it won't hurt anybody," stated Nick Gargano.
Deidre Marini disagrees, stating, “We all have our own choice to make ... Whether we agree or not and I don’t agree with letting them walk out of class,” She went on to say, “There is a little thing called rules. If the schools aren't approving this then the kids are breaking the rules and should therefore be reprimanded. There are plenty of other ways their voices can be heard.”
Christine Heine, a mom of two SPHS students, also disagrees with the walkout and feels that letting children leave school – and publicizing it – isn’t a smart idea.
“Advertising across social media where God knows who is seeing it that children will be out on a certain date, for a specific amount of time…just seems dangerous,” stated Heine on the ‘We are South Plainfield’ page. “I feel safer with my children inside the building where I know the school and local police can monitor and control who has access to entry in the building.”
While the Feb. 20 post on the South Plainfield community group’s social media page garnered hundreds of comments from both sides of the aisle in a 24-hour period, Heine was the only one to attend Wednesday night’s board of education meeting to discuss her concerns.
“The idea of the whole school walking out, including teachers or administrators as suggested by the original post, is scary…I think it sets the stage for a more dangerous situation,” Heine told the BOE. “I think it is dangerous. I feel more secure knowing my kids are in the confines of the school building.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Noreen Lishak told TAPinto South Plainfield that while the district is in no way encouraging students to take part in the National School Walkout, it will be prepared should students participate. Additionally, said Lishak, at the high school, Principal Ronnie Spring and members of the student council will be organizing in-school activities for March 14.
“These activities will focus on school safety and the process for change,” said the superintendent. “The events scheduled for the day are meant to have a positive impact on the students…”
“Our mission statement states that ‘we are resolved to educate the whole child, instilling the desire within our students to question and become divergent thinkers who can achieve their fullest potential.’ This education not only takes its form in the classroom, but also outside our schools through events and environment as encountered through the news and other sources,” said BOE President Bill Seesselberg at Wednesday night’s meeting. “We commend our students for being aware of recent events, researching the facts, and developing their opinions, and respect their right to positively express their views and participate in a movement for change in local or national policies.”
Seesselberg went on to state, “On March 14, a demonstration event, organized by a national entity, will be held throughout the country and our students may participate. While our primary purpose is in-school education, we respect their efforts to express their views and expect this expression to be peaceful, orderly, and have a positive effect on them and the community. Our staff and administration, in consultation with public safety officials, will coordinate a proper procedure that will balance the rights of the students to express their views and the orderly operation of the school day.”
Neither Dr. Lishak nor the South Plainfield Board of Education discussed what, if any, the ramifications would be should students partake in next month’s walkout.
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