'Nobody Will Hear Our Voices if We Are Silenced Behind Walls': Students, Parents Critical of District's Handling of Summit Middle School Walkout

From left, Ravi Naidu, Joanna Geci, and Zachary Siegel were among a series of students who addressed the Board. Credits: Melanie Wilson

SUMMIT, NJ - Students and parents alike, with one exception, voiced their disagreement -- during the public comment section of last night's Board of Education Meeting -- with how the Summit Public School District handled the March 14 school walkout at Summit's Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS).

District administrators and officials responded by saying the plan and its implementation were prompted solely by student-centric safety concerns and came as a result of the school's athletic field currently being covered by snow.

A series of poised, articulate middle schoolers took to the podium in the Summit High School Media Center to express their disappointment in not being able to leave the building during the March 14 National School Walkout to protest gun violence, which was held exactly one-month after a mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

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The plan to walkout of the middle school to the rear field was changed last minute, with students who had submitted the required permission slips allowed to walk out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. but not permitted to exit the building, with Summit Police officers and teachers stationed at each of the doors. Instead, the students who left their classrooms were directed to the school's Auditorium.

Student Ravi Naidu, son of current Summit Common Council President David Naidu, said, “The point of the walkout was not simply to ‘walk out’ — it was designed to allow students to express their opinions and have them heard by others, such as government representatives. Staying in the Auditorium defeated the main point of the walkout.”

Another student, Zachary Siegel, said, “Limiting us to the Auditorium defeated the whole purpose of the walkout because we could not publicly take a stand and add our voices to the thousands of others who were joining together to demand better gun laws and safer schools. The communities where these shootings have happened, towns like Parkland and Newtown, are wealthy, quiet communities that remind me a lot of Summit. If these acts of violence can happen there, then they can happen anywhere, so we must be able to take a stand for our own safety.”

Siegel added, “Going to school isn’t only about learning, but also about developing children’s character. If people want to protest, let them protest. Nobody will hear our voices if we are silenced behind walls.".

In a letter addressed to parents Thursday, LCJSMS Principal Damen Cooper apologized for the last-minute location change, and said that the large amount of snow on the field prevented the students from using it. “Despite the change in venue, students were still able to express themselves peacefully. Please know that safety was our main concern through the entire process,” he wrote.

Many of the students who spoke acknowledged Cooper’s letter, but were not satisfied. Gabby Ma said, “To use snow as an excuse is just wrong. How is three inches of snow going to get in the way of us walking? We could have just walked on the sidewalk. The worst part was they were going to make us sit in silence which was not what we were originally told. I heard that Washington Elementary school had a fire drill. Snow wasn’t keeping them from walking outside. Also, the high school got to do an actual walkout but why weren’t we? Why couldn’t we do a peaceful protest for just 17 minutes outside? All I wanted to do was get my voice heard about gun control and my thoughts on the Parkland school shooting heard.”

About 10 students in total spoke, including Lilian Betz, Madison DeGennaro, Joanna Geci, Edward Vela on behalf of another student, and Cammy Barrett.

The students that addressed the school body were praised by Board President Rick Hanley. “I am impressed and proud of the students for speaking in a respectful way.” He also commended Superintendent of Schools June Chang and the building supervisors for ensuring the safety needs of the students.  

Middle School Parent Julie Latzer questioned the District policy on the walkout and how the decision was made that the middle schoolers would stay inside.  

Chang said that there was “no decision to be made.”  “If they walkout, they walkout."

He reiterated his statements made at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, that the walkout was not a school-sanctioned event, but stated that the District did try to provide safe areas for the students to walkout. This was possible behind the high school where there was turf, he said, but because of the snow in the back of LCJSMS it was not feasible. The front of the school is on Morris Avenue, and he said that area was too open. “The whole world would know where they would be,” he said.

Latzer said that with teachers and police officers stationed at the doors the students felt that they couldn’t walk out.  

Middle School Parent Hazel Siegel said that having the teachers and police blocking the doors created “an intimidating and scary environment, exactly the opposite of what the walkout is supposed to do," and added that, perhaps, the school and the administration did not realize how much “standing up and saying enough is enough” meant to the students.

Chang said that it was a safety decision.  

Kristen Pierotti, LCJSMS parent and co-president of the school's PTO, said, “The children’s ability to protest was squelched.”

The opposite view was expressed by parent Vickie Freeman, whose husband James is a former Board of Education member, who said that she was impressed and pleased with the way the District handled the event. Freeman noted that there are two sides to every issue, and that different families have different views.

Reading letters she sent to Chang, Cooper, Summit High School Principal Stacy Grimaldi, and Lincoln-Hubbard Principal Matt Carlin, which thank them collectively for their "calm and sensible leadership," Freeman said, "You all perfectly balanced preparation for an event you knew would occur, with respect and understanding, while maintaining objectivity -- not endorsing or supporting it -- knowing there are two sides to every issue.

You made sure all the walkout kids were safe at all times, and showed respect for families with differing views (or who simply felt it was not for them) in that learning continued for those who did not choose to participate in the walkout.

You communicated clearly and early with parents about expectations and requirements for participation. (And when some offered flawed interpretations, you immediately responded to the school community to calmly clarify the guidelines.)

You also rightly understood that the subject matter inspiring the event today was mature in nature and might be scary for young kids. So you addressed that at the elementary schools with age appropriate guidance & protocol."

She said that she hoped that the District would not “spend another minute of time on this, and that the people would take their concerns to the legislators. “Let everyone get back to work."


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