Hundreds of Morristown High School students left the building on Friday morning, with heavy school supervision and police security, to participate in the second National Student Walkout to protest gun violence.
For 20 minutes they streamed from the Early Street entrance, turned down Atno Avenue into a brisk wind that made mid-40-degree temperatures feel colder, and paraded around the football field before being ushered back inside by administrators.
The event, commemorating the 19th anniversary of the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, was in sharp contrast to last month’s walkout.
For that one, which marked one month since the Valentine’s Day massacre at a school in Parkland, Fla., Morristown school officials cited security concerns and kept students inside.
A handful who defied the administration by stepping outside were assigned to write their congressional representative as penance.
“We wanted our rights. We want to be heard,” senior Maggie Mustion said on Friday.
“We had our first walk and we weren’t allowed to go outside, and people were really disappointed. So we started the second one…and I was really worried because I didn’t know if the administration was going to be cool with it. But I’m really happy to see the turnout,” Mustion said.
Some teachers joined students in Friday’s walkout.
Rich Ferrone, security director for the Morris School District, estimated 500 youths–nearly one-third of the school–participated. He characterized students’ behavior as “orderly and respectful.”
“Students approached the administration and expressed their interest. We just wanted to make sure they could do it safely,” said Ferrone, hired in November after retiring as police captain in Morris Township.
Police from Morristown and the Township were highly visible, as were school security personnel and administrators who maintained a perimeter. Principal Mark Manning carried a bullhorn and mingled among the students.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
Manning declined to comment and District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this month, District officials outlined plans for beefed-up security that include bullet-proof window coatings and hiring of armed, retired police officers for all schools in the regional district.
News accounts reported Friday’s turnouts across the country were smaller than in March. Some 2,600 schools were anticipated to take part, according to the organizers’ website. These April 20, 2018, walkouts stemmed from an online drive by students at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut.
The Morristown-Beard School, West Morris Mendham High School and Mt. Olive High School were among area schools where students planned walkouts on Friday.
‘THERE NEEDS TO BE A CHANGE’
In contrast to last month’s somber, silent indoor memorial for slain Parkland students, Friday’s blustery scene outside Morristown High suggested a crowd heading to a football game.
Students carried few signs. Some pupils shrugged or joked when asked why they were walking out. “To free Bobby Schmurda,” answered one boy, referring to a rapper serving jail time for a weapons charge.
Others took the event more seriously.
“I’d like to see more gun laws. There should be gun control. It’s just not right. There’s too many people dying,” said El-Amin Bashir, a junior.
Freshman Jack Buell said it’s tragic so many school shootings have happened since Columbine.
“There needs to be a change. I would really like to see stricter gun laws, like more background checks on people going to buy assault rifles and weapons, and maybe even banning assault rifles all-out,” Buell said.
Bella Simon, who leads Melanin Minds, the school’s African American cultural club, acknowledged Principal Mark Manning for “supporting us this time and allowing us to leave the building without any consequences.
“We might be a little late, but MHS will be marching in support and in remembrance of the 17 lives lost on Feb. 14 [in Parkland], and all of the other lives lost in school shootings. It is never too late to take a stand,” Simon said prior to Friday’s walkout.
Senior Sage Levy, a key organizer, also expressed appreciation for the administration’s help and generally was pleased. But rules were overly restrictive, in her view.
“We weren’t allowed to stop and congregate or stop to take a picture…it did feel very controlled,” Levy said. The walkout was preceded by conflicts with “intolerant conservative students,” who missed an opportunity to discuss an important issue, she said.
Another rally is planned on May 5 at Morristown town hall. Cyclists from Connecticut’s Team 26 — the name refers to the number of pupils and staff members murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012–will stop there during their annual ride to Washington DC.
They are pressing Congress for universal background checks on all gun sales, gun violence restraining orders, raising the minimum age to 21 for all gun purchases, rejecting national concealed-carry reciprocity, and a ban on assault weapons and magazines.
Mustion said she hopes students continue to speak up.
“If we just let this die out, and if we just stop talking about it, pretty soon people are going to forget,” she said.
“So if we keep marching, if we keep raising our voice, finally people will say we’re not just some dumb kids trying to get attention or trying just to create problems. That we really do care. I really hope people actually open their eyes.”