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Scenes from a day of student activism

Across the city, students take a stand as part of the National School Walkout to protest gun violence.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Dale Mezzacappa
While marching for the Parkland, Florida, victims, students from Mastery Charter-Lenfest Campus were also remembering people closer to home.

Most of them and the teachers accompanying them wore orange cards bearing messages about why they were walking. Some said they wanted to get the attention of Congress to enact gun control. Others said they wanted to feel safer in school. One teacher’s card said simply, “I am marching for my students.”

Eleventh grader Amya Gordon’s sign said: “I am walking out 4 Kymani M. Roane.”

Roane, her older brother, was shot and killed last November while sitting in his car at a red light. He was 22.

Gordon wasn’t sure, at first, whether she wanted to participate.

“Because we don’t get this type of attention in our neighborhood if there’s a shooting,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why are we getting together for Florida when we don’t get together for our own community?’”

But she thought about it, with the help of teachers such as Colleen DiDonato, who teaches English, social justice, and meditation at the 545-student school.

“The day after the [Parkland] shooting, they wanted to talk about it,” said DiDonato as she accompanied the students down Market Street to Penn’s Landing. She told them it was too soon – she needed time to process the incident and figure out the best approach.

The signs were original, direct, pleading and angry: “Put an end to school shootings,” said one. “My education matters but my life matters more!”

Within days, DiDonato, who has taught at Lenfest for 11 years, had a plan. Some junior and senior classes watched the town hall meeting on TV where some of the Parkland students confronted U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio about his support for the National Rifle Association. Students researched and put together a slideshow on violence in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, which was then presented to the entire school.

After that, students could sign up if they wanted to attend the walkout. About 200 of the 545 students (grades 7-12) did so. Half of them were juniors and seniors.

Dale Mezzacappa
There was a lot of planning. In addition to the personal messages on the orange cards, students carried flowers with orange messages attached that contained data and statistics from Children’s Hospital regarding the impact of violence on young people. (Orange ribbons symbolize gun control.) They gave the flowers, with their messages, to random people on the way to Penn’s Landing to spread the word.

They made their own signs, which they held up during their walk and 17-minute vigil, a wind-blown American flag and the city skyline behind them, the sparkling Delaware River in their sights.

The signs were original, direct, pleading and angry: “Put an end to school shootings,” said one. “My education matters but my life matters more!” The 17 Parkland names were written inside a drawing of a handgun. Another said “Am I next? Fear has no place in our school.” In the corner, “no guns.”

There were long messages and short ones. A girl held a sign saying “When we protect guns more than we protect children, we become an uncivilized society. Black kids are 10x’s more likely than white kids to die from gun violence, stud[ies] say.” That was near a sign reading “books not bullets,” and another that simply said “#change.”

Diamond Parks carried a sign that featured Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 at age 17 in Florida. “He would have been 22,” it said. The sign tied his killing to domestic violence because his shooter had a history of it and still had no trouble owning a gun.

She lives in West Philadelphia and is no stranger to gun violence. “Usually, people get shot every summer,” she said. “Where I live, it’s an everyday thing.”

Same for Diamonique Maxwell, 17, also from West Philadelphia.

“Last night, there was a shootout on 52nd Street. I feel that this [protesting] shouldn’t be starting now because this has been happening in communities and neighborhoods. Guns shouldn’t be allowed, period, because we use them in the wrong way. The government should protect us,” she said.

During the vigil, one student rang a bell at each minute, while another held up a sign with the name and age of one victim. The students massed on the steps stood in total silence.

Lenfest, in the heart of Old City just two blocks from Independence Hall, is the oldest of Mastery’s Philadelphia schools, opened in 2002. It has no metal detectors or security guards. A few students interviewed, unnerved by school shootings and the periodic lockdown drills conducted at Lenfest, said they thought these things were needed.

“Right now people are paranoid after the school shooting,” said Robert Smalls, 18, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia.

But most of the students disagreed, and, in fact, regard those security measures as counterproductive. “We don’t have metal detectors and security guards, which sends a message that we have a community that doesn’t need those things,” said Terrance Booker, 17, a junior. “It gives the vibe that we are a community that trusts one another.”

Amya Gordon, the student whose brother was shot last fall, agrees. “We don’t need them because our community is not violent,” she said. Staff members know the students and are on top of disputes before they escalate.

It was the concept of taking a stand on behalf of a wider community that caused Gordon to rethink her initial reluctance to take part in the walkout.

“I decided to march for a higher purpose,” she said. “If I march, it would be for my brother and others. If I didn’t participate, I’d be like everybody else who sits around and does nothing.”

– Dale Mezzacappa

***

Jane M. Von Bergen
Central High School

At first, when the doors to Central High School opened, it was just a trickle, handfuls of students in their crimson and gold high school hoodies and letter jackets. Soon, though, the trickle turned to a river, as hundreds, maybe even a thousand, Central students streamed out from the public magnet school’s big red doors onto the lawn outside.

“Arming more officers is not the answer,” organizer Kaila Caffey, 18, told the crowd, as she began the event. “The solution to gun violence is not more guns.”

“You can’t have in your mission statement that you are developing leaders,” Central’s president said, “and not have them lead.”

From her vantage point on top of a hill under a leafless tree, Caffey could see her classmates, impressively silent and many holding signs. “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance,” read one. “Enough is Enough,” “Never Again,” “No More Silence, No Gun Violence,” “Sympathy Doesn’t Save Lives,” and because we have teenagers here, “Squeeze Boobs, Not Guns.”

Caffey, a senior, began the event talking about school safety – from intruders from the outside, but also from security officers inside, who, sometimes at other schools, she said, terrify students and abuse their power. Also important, she said, is a sharper focus on mental illness, improving access to treatment for students, and removing the stigma so people can get help.

Completely organized by students, Central’s program consisted of short vignettes about each of the 17 people who died in Florida. Each student read their part movingly, all with messages of courage, hope, and anger about lives cut short by gun violence. They talked about the futures that disappeared so suddenly with the lost lives and about the movement they inspired.

“No child should be placed in a threatening situation,” one of the students said, quoting a father whose child died at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a month ago. That is, the student reader said, “the reason we walk today.”

Juniors Cassidy Arrington, 16, from Southwest Philadelphia, and Makiyah Adams, 17, from Germantown, read a poem, urging adults to think through the issue and decide whether it makes any sense to support people who support the unfettered acquisition of guns.

“My right to live is worth so much more than your right to carry,” they said.

Students at Central, one of the largest schools in Philadelphia, come from all over the city. Enrollment is huge, like at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

“I’m responsible for 2,500 people on a daily basis,” said Central’s president, Timothy J. McKenna, “so you always worry that something like [what happened in Florida] could happen. There’s always that stress when you are in charge of people.”

Midway through the event, a throng of young women ran toward the school, crossing Ogontz Avenue, shouting, with their fists raised. They came from the Philadelphia High School for Girls, another public magnet school, which is located a block away. The girls were quickly and peacefully ushered away by nearby police and security who had shut down Ogontz Avenue ahead of the walkout.

“At Girls’ High, we’re for the sisterhood,” junior Danyia Lock said as she hustled back to campus with her classmates. It’s important, she said, for everyone to raise their voices. They had hoped to join Central’s event.

Jane M. Von Bergen
One of Central’s organizers, senior Christopher Carson, 18, said he was glad to see his fellow students from Girls’ High.

“I appreciate that they were participating in the rally,” he said. It demonstrates, he said, how much all students care about safety and mental health issues.

Carson, who is African American, said he understood the frustration of people in his community who wondered why more attention hasn’t been paid to gun violence in the neighborhoods.

But, he said, “oppression is oppression and violence is violence.” As someone who is both African American and a student, “it’s important for me to participate in both conversations.”

Carson had ended the program by leading the students in an African chant. “It means power to the people, guys,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing; we’re taking back the power.”

After the program ended, McKenna walked over to congratulate organizers Carson and Grace Del Vecchio, 18, a senior.

“They are being citizens,” McKenna said. “They are taking leadership.”

Meanwhile, behind him, a river of students flowed away from the school, down the hill toward the corner of Olney and Ogontz Avenues and up Olney toward the Broad Street subway, en route to the rally planned outside City Hall.

McKenna said the missing students would be marked absent, but there would be no disciplinary consequences.

“You can’t have in your mission statement that you are developing leaders,” he said, “and not have them lead.”

– Jane M. Von Bergen

To see more articles, photos and videos of the National School Walkout and Student Vision for School Safety March in Philadelphia, click here.

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