walkout

What it looked like as students across America walked out of school to protest gun violence

Thousands of local students sit for 17 minutes during a nationwide student walkout for gun control in front the White House on March 14, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Students across America left their classrooms on Wednesday to take part in a national protest pushing for stricter gun laws and memorializing those who died in last month’s school shooting in Florida.

The event was rare in its scope, with students from hundreds of schools leaving class for at least 17 minutes in memory of the 14 teens and three teachers killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland one month ago. The event continued throughout the day, with students walking out at 10 a.m. local time across the country.

“People need to start realizing that there needs to be change,” explained Zhy’yon Hoover, a sophomore at Northwest High School in Indianapolis who helped organize that school’s protest, on Wednesday morning.

PHOTO: Dylan McCoy
Students at Northwest High School joined the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

In New York City, students in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood chanted and carried signs reading “How many more?”

Other demonstrations were quiet: elementary school students at P.S. 40 in Manhattan stood with their parents and observed a moment of silence.

At Stoneman Douglas, students had gathered on the school’s football field by 10 a.m. David Hogg, a student who has become one of the most prominent faces of student activism after the shooting, livestreamed the walk-out and thanked school administrators for supporting the effort to remember those who died.

“They don’t have their voices, but we still do,” Hogg said.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students from The SALK School of Science in New York City join Wednesday’s national walkout.

In Washington D.C., lawmakers at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on improving school safety acknowledged the event, too.

“Across the country, in a few minutes, students from across America will be exercising their First Amendment right to speak out about changes that they want on how we regulate our Second Amendment right,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, alluding to the uphill battle students may face in advocating for stricter gun control laws.

Moments earlier, Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the judiciary committee’s chair, said that he was introducing a new bill — the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial Act of 2018” — in order to conduct research on school safety and threat assessment training for schools. But Diane Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, focused her remarks on limiting access to guns.

“High school students who have lost their friends are literally begging us to take action to get these guns off the streets and out of our schools,” she said.

In several districts in the Northeast, a snow day — normally a cause for celebration among students — derailed walk-out plans. In Vermont, some students said they would delay the protest until Thursday, but in Portland, Maine, two dozen middle schoolers still marched with signs like, “Will your school be next?” and “Is it your opinion or the NRA’s?” In Massachusetts, despite widespread school closures, many students still planned to march to the statehouse in protest.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School walked out Wednesday in New York City.

At some schools, protesting students needed to navigate school policies designed to minimize disruption. But some politicians and school officials have offered their support for the event: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and AFT President Randi Weingarten walked out of a Manhattan school and participated in a “die in.” Both the Boston and Philadelphia school districts tweeted support for protesting students.

Meanwhile, students who have long been fighting — and experiencing the consequences of — gun violence had mixed feelings about the national attention the Parkland shooting has focused on the issue.

In Detroit, many students participating were remembering their own, less-publicized tragedies. Darryl Erwin, 17, recalled his mother’s shoulder being grazed when someone fired bullets at several houses on his block.

Students at Western High School in Detroit gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

“I don’t want the school shootings to overshadow the youth violence shootings that happen every day,” said Brandon Warren, a high school senior in Indianapolis who had two classmates killed last spring and started a local anti-violence group as a result. Students at his school were allowed to walk out of classes but not leave the school due to safety concerns.

In Colorado, which has a tragic history of school shootings, hundreds of Denver high school students marched out of class and converged on the state Capitol steps to chant and wave signs decrying gun violence.

Some were holding hand lettered signs: “Protect Kids, Not Guns,” one said. “Keep Your Guns Out of My School.” “Am I Next?”

“We’ve been existing in a world of violence since we were born,” one student said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, briefly address the crowd, saying into a megaphone: “You look pretty fired up,” he said into a megaphone. “A big part is just the fact you took the initiative to come out here and show up. It’s a big part, but it’s not the only part.”

Another national protest is planned for next month: a “day of action” on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. That protest, sponsored by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Network for Public Education among others, encourages events at schools focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Melanie Asmar, Monica Disare, Dylan Peers McCoy, Amanda Rahn, Kimberly Hayes Taylor, and Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting. 

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.