EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - More than 400 East Brunswick residents, teachers, students, and parents attended a vigil on Sunday night to express their grief for the loss of life in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Three teachers and 14 students were killed by a single shooter. 14 others were wounded. The event has resonated with students across the country, driving youth advocacy for school safety and against gun violence. In East Brunswick, in a mood that was somber yet strong, the voices of youth were heard.
The hour-long evening event drew township, school, and county officials in a unique presentation organized by East Brunswick for Safe Schools, a newly-formed grassroots organization of parents and students. Moms and dads and kids distributed candles and wristbands with the hashtag "never again," the group's focus to end gun violence in America's schools.
"This is a great effort by young people to bring awareness. These problems are not going away. Schools in East Brunswick are more secure than many others. The Town Council is on united with the Board of Education on the urgent need to keep our students and teachers safe," said Councilman Jim Wendell, in a reference to the district's implementation of a plan to place armed police officers in all schools throughout the hours of operation. The move has brought national attention to East Brunswick, with some people questioning the decision.
Wendell was joined by fellow Councilman Sterley Stanley and Council President Michael Spadafino in his support for the need to prioritize safety in schools. "I am proud of the students at East Brunswick High School. They are trying to make sure that the issue of gun violence does not pass into silence. They are showing us adults how to act. Students are caring about students," said Spadafino.
Also supporting the event were Freeholders Shanti Narra and Kenneth Armwood. Narra said, "I am glad that the township is giving these students the opportunity to speak. They have created a sense of solidarity with another community that has been traumatized. I hope that this is the beginning of a vibrant, continuing movement." She went on to cite the successful gun control legislation that Australia put into place following a mass shooting that took the lives of 35 people in 1996.
The official program began with the recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner led by Kathy Spadafino, Director of the East Brunswick Chorus.
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Temple B'Nai Tikvah and Reverend Erica Munoz of Aldersgate Methodist Church provided a cooperatively-delivered blessing. "Our hearts break for the families," said Eisenkramer, who urged those in attendance to "Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you."
Munoz reminded those present that "God is always with us. We are never alone." She asked the crowd to continue to work toward the goal of safety and protection for all people. Echoing Phillippians 4:7, she wished the group "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding."
Mayor Brad Cohen then expressed eagerness for the dialogue to continue beyond the evening's event. He drew a comparison between the effective legal restraints put on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol and the possible limits put on gun purchases. "There is no public purpose for assault weapons, "said Cohen. The Mayor recounted the story of the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980 and the success of the national movement that followed.
Cohen emphasized that guns should be in the hands of "responsible authorities who are enabled and empowered to their jobs." He noted that he was not happy about increasing the security in the East Brunswick Schools but that he felt that keeping everyone safe is his "#1 job as mayor."
"I don't want to be the mayor who said 'that can't happen here' after an incident of violence," said Cohen.
He then directed his comments to the young people in attendance: "Americans have always been social activists. It has made us a better country." Referring to the fight for greater gun control, Cohen admitted, "The opposition is powerful and well-funded. You are going to have to fight like your life depended on it because, believe me, it does."
Schools Superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski said that he was "speaking from the heart" as both a school administrator and a father. He acknowledged that events like this program in East Brunswick should not have to happen and the problem of guns in schools should have been solved already. He recounted the chilling tale of his own son who was on campus as a student at Virginia Tech on April 6, 2007 when a senior shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks before committing suicide. Though his son was not injured, Valeski said that he still remained haunted by the events of that day. "We have to do something to keep this in the public consciousness. Keep that voice active and loud. We must demand that semi-automatic weapons do not get into the hands of private citizens," said. Valeski, a veteran of the United States Air Force.
Valeski said that he recognized that East Brunswick pays a high premium for the district schools, which have been recognized nationally for excellence. "Right now, my priority is safety and security. We have to be a consistently safe school district."
"New Jersey has some of the best gun laws in the country," asserted Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin. "Many gun bills have passed, but many have been rejected by Governor Christie. Pinkin discussed an upcoming meeting which she invited those present to attend on Wednesday, February 28 at 11:00 in Room 11 of the New Jersey State House in Trenton. Bills being reviewed include those dealing with smart gun technology; background checks for private gun sales; "cross-carrying of guns between states with different laws regarding gun possession; and the prohibition of the sale of ammunition that can pierce body armor.
"We have a chance to make a change," Pinkin said, noting that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy will meet with his peers form New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to share information about guns in the same way they cooperate in the effort to combat opiate abuse.
Following a recitation of the names of the Parkland victims by East Brunswick students, activist and organizer Jolie Harmon was the first student to speak at the event. She told the story of February 14 being just a normal day until she learned of the violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where her best friend is a student. Her concern led to her desire to "turn her anger into action" on the issue of gun control.
Referencing the the decision by the Board of Education and the East Brunswick Police Department which had been in process for two years, she said, "I applaud the East Brunswick Schools for their decision to increase student safety, but I am sorry it has come to this."
Harmon then called on her fellow students to act regarding gun violence: "We are 1, 2, 3 years away from voting and have to learn to use our own voices. Together we can make a difference."
"We shouldn't have to be scared to come to school, " said sophomore Vanessa Russo. "This movement is powerful because young people are running it. Russo then referred to the district's plans to support a student walkout on March 14 to show solidarity with the growing national movement of young people against gun violence. "We are for gun control and increased mental health outreach. We are trying to fix a broken system."
"Let's make this shooting the last," she said.
"I have never felt more proud to be a member of this community," announced EBHS junior Jillian Fiumaro, indicating the crowd and the supportive feeling at the event. However, she also noted that her "sense of security was lost forever" following the shootings in Parkland. "We cannot rely on this being the new normal. We need to make a change."
Nikhil Sadaranganey, a senior, told the story of an elementary student who wanted new shoes because she feared that her light-up sneakers would make her a target in a school attack as a metaphor for the pervasive fear among students of all ages. He also added, "Teachers should think about teaching."
Sadaranganey stated, "There has not been a single day when I have been afraid to walk into school in East Brunswick." He cited his experience as a member of the EBHS Model UN and IPLE programs with making him a more informed citizen. He twice noted that 'Youth is no excuse for inaction" and expressed the need for "educated voters" to make change. He urged those in attendance to vote.
Kathleen Elle, local performing artist who received national attention for her award-winning anti bullying song "Don't Let Them In," sang Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" as the crowd rhythmically waved candles and cell phones in support and connection.
Jennifer Harmon and Dana Winston, the founders and spokespersons for East Brunswick for Safe Schools, spoke next. Harmon recited the poem 17, based on the number of lives lost in Parkland, that evoked images like "17 homes with an empty chair."
Winston said that she was "fed up with feeling powerless and hopeless, tired of debating with people" when she started the group. She said that current society is "cynical" and not active in solving problems. She asked that parents, students, and non-parents from all political affiliations to join the group help find solutions to gun violence, especially in schools, and to support those in public life who are working for change.
The program concluded with an emotional speech by Jeffrey Winston, father of five students in the East Brunswick Public Schools. "After what happened last week (student activism and concern about gun control) I heard it was a 'knee-jerk' reaction to be concerned about safety in the schools. It's enough to make your head spin. This is an issue that has been 20 years in the making. It's been 20 years since Columbine. I am tired of it."
"I love you is the most important thing you can say to your kids every day. The world is still a wonderful place. Tell your kids - you are beautiful, you are valuable, you matter," he said.
"Anyone who is 'willing to put some skin in the game' is welcome to join this group. We are now being led by youth in much the same way the protests against the war in Vietnam and for Civil Rights were. Today is their day. Our group is your group," said Winston. "Parents love your children. Kids, put down your phones and talk to each other."
Winston closed the event by imploring, "Love each other. Love each other. Love each other."