A month after the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School, an estimated 500 students walked out of Robbinsville High School on a cold, windy day to stand together, name the 17 dead, and demand political change.
Students quietly made their way onto the athletic field, where they listened to seven student speakers who criticized adults and expressed their own support for political action to change U.S. laws regulating firearms.
“Is being safe in our schools too much to ask Congress, or are we going to have this endless cycle of debating whether guns are the problem or people are the problem, or whether it’s a mental health issue or not?” said Mubeen Ayuby, senior class president. “I really don’t care what it is, but all I know is that we cannot sit back and just keep sending our prayers and condolences.”
Comparing the inaccurate muskets that could fire only two shots a minute—the prevalent firearms when the Second Amendment was written—to guns today that can fire up to 130 rounds a minute with great accuracy, Ayuby asked, “If our guns have changed, why haven’t our laws?”
A military-grade assault rifle, he said, “is the same weapon of choice for all of America’s mass shootings because their goal in the end is to cause as much damage in the least amount of time.” It is not, he emphasized, something an average citizen needs.
Junior Carolina Vieira focused on what she saw as the reason we have not been able to move forward on gun safety and other issues—the inability of both politicians and our citizenry to compromise. “That means listening to each other. And actually listening to each other enough to acknowledge one another’s position,” she said.
Vieira urged students to educate themselves and decide where they stand politically and “where your morals are, and they may differ from your parents, and that’s OK.”
“We will not let this just be another statistic,” Vieira said. “It has to be us because we will not make the same mistake the current generation of adults made. We will save the lives of our own children. We will save the lives of the next generation and every generation after that…We will make the changes that should’ve happened 19 years ago after the Columbine shooting. We will not give up.”
Sophomore Alysha Waseem shared statistics on gun violence—seven children and teens in the U.S. killed daily with guns; 31 school shootings since Columbine in 1999; the 10 U.S. states with the weakest gun laws collectively have a level of gun violence over twice as high as the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.
“We must be the ambassadors for change in this country, because the current status quo is no longer acceptable,” Waseem said. “Many of our lawmakers believe that teenagers are too young, too naïve, too emotional, to talk about guns. Yet, as soon as we turn 18 we’re allowed to own as many firearms as we want.”
Senior and executive council president Sydney Flyge said, “Action must be taken to ensure that our school, or any other across the country, is not the next school that ‘thought this could never happen to them,’ because if we do not change how we regulate firearms, execute background checks, approach mental health, secure schools and react to emergency situations, the violence will continue.”
“We are here in hopes of inspiring change that increases safety for all students,” Flyge said, urging students to educate themselves and hold their representatives accountable. “So that no child has to die. So that no student has to go to school in fear. So that teenagers don’t have to mourn the lives of dead friends. So that parents don’t have to stare across the dinner table at an empty chair that their child once occupied.”
Noting the work that teachers have done with students on how to collaborate, build consensus and be respectful of one another, Robbinsville High School principal Molly Avery told the Advance, “I support our students being young adults that are exercising their rights about something they feel passionately about…A lot of the students do have a strong desire to create positive change in our world and in our country…Teenagers mobilizing and taking a stand is important…I’m proud of my kids, taking on the responsibility of organizing themselves.”
Robbinsville High School has approximately 983 students, meaning just more than half the student body participated in the walkout. Students who did not want to participate stayed in study halls.
Robbinsville Schools superintendent Kathie Foster said, “We are absolutely proud of our students. This is a great way to learn how to participate as a city in our community, our state, and our world.”
Kim Tew, assistant superintendent of curriculum and formerly a sixth-grade social studies teacher, added, “To see the active citizenship and a peaceful demonstration is very inspiring to me. The whole point of schools is to make kids involved, informed citizens and for students to demonstrate that citizenship in action.”
In conversation with the Advance after the walkout, Flyge described how she ended up a strong supporter of the walkout and helped realize it in Robbinsville. After the shootings, she says, “I personally watched everything on the news, their speeches online and their interviews on talk shows. I follow them on social media, and reached out to them on Twitter. They said the best way to support the issue is to bring it into your own school.”
So when the Gender Liberation Club approached her with a petition for a walkout she quickly got on board.
To plan the walkout, a group of about 35 student leaders met to build a consensus and figure out how to organize themselves and communicate with their classmates. They then turned into Avery, per her request, “a finished product of what they were going to do.”
Avery had talked to them first about how safety was her priority as principal. “I had to make sure they organized their classmates in a way that I considered safe and orderly in terms of running the school,” Avery says.
The students then presented the idea at a Board of Education meeting attended by many students, parents and teachers. Although there was some disagreement on the value of the walkout and whether the students should protest indoors or outside, the board was “really supportive,” Flyge says.
Flyge adds that she did read about some parents who had expressed concerns that “these students are too young for this and are doing it just to get out of class.”
Ayuby jumped in to suggest that the walkout sent an important message “not only to local officials and lawmakers, congressional reps, but just the older generation to say, ‘We do have a voice, we care about these issues.’ We had 500 students out in 30-degree weather because we do care and do want change. This is about us, and if you’re not going to take the lead, we’re going to take the lead.”
Despite some parental concerns about safety, Flyge says, “We decided to stay true to how the people who originated the protest, the victims of the shootings, wanted it to be done. The point of walking out of the school physically is to show that the school itself, the building, is not keeping kids safe.”
Flyge says she will be continuing her personal activism in several ways. She planned to take a group to New York City’s March for Our Lives, as well as writing letters and make phone calls to legislators, planning another walkout on April 20, visiting local legislative offices to demand change and possibly planning a town hall event for students from throughout Mercer County to talk to legislators.
“The only way we are going to incite any real change on the local and national level is if we keep up with the movement,” Flyge says.
Feeling empowered by the walkout, Flyge says. “For a long time I have felt like I really didn’t have a place to speak up on the issues I felt passionate about. I started to believe the notion that teens aren’t educated enough and are too emotional to have respected opinions and viewpoints. This [the walkout] has shown me that in a lot of cases I am as informed as many adults. Myself and all the students who participated today are willing to take action. I think that this is something that will inspire me to take a bigger role in the issues of our country and our community.”
Mubeen Ayuby, senior class president, says he hadn’t thought about pushing for the walkout himself until he saw the petition of the Gender Liberation Club.
“It motivated and inspired me—we will have a voice,” he says.
“Politics is something I’m passionate about, especially these modern-day issues that this generation going to face: school safety and how I don’t want people to live with fear of them going to school and being shot in their own school; they should only be worrying about learning and building their future,” Ayuby says.
Seeing how many people cared about the issue and were willing to be part of the walkout, gives Ayuby “hope and faith” going forward.
“The more we keep pushing is the more change we’re going to get,” he said. “Whatever happened in Parkland, it’s going down in history—and not just because of the shootings. It is starting a movement, a revolution.”