PHS, Taconic students walk out, speak minds in wake of Florida school shooting

Students from Pittsfield and Taconic high schools organized walkouts on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, to advocate for school safety in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
BEN GARVER and GILLIAN JONES — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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PITTSFIELD — They've grown up in an era of gun violence in schools — attacks that caused deaths and tears but haven't translated into serious change.

And they've had enough.

On Tuesday morning, hundreds of students from Pittsfield and Taconic high schools walked out of their classes and became part of a growing national movement in response to school violence after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

At both demonstrations, members of the press were prevented from entering areas where students gathered and were kept far enough back that it was impossible to hear the speakers. Some students approached the barriers to talk to Eagle reporters.

Pittsfield School Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, who was at the Taconic track during the demonstration, said the school district had to fulfill its obligation to ensure student safety, and cited this as the reason Eagle reporters and photographers were not allowed closer to the demonstrations. Eagle newsroom staff routinely covers school events.

Pittsfield High School

From behind a plastic orange fence secured with traffic barrels, about 300 Pittsfield High School students could be seen from East Street assembled in front of the school.

After the 10 a.m. walkout, the majority of students trained their attention to the speakers by the school's front door, but a group of about 50 students stood closer to the street, lining the front of the barricade and looking out at about a dozen community members gathered on sidewalks in solidarity.

The teens waved and cheered for the trucks and cars whose drivers honked as they drove by.

Plenty of students were willing to project their voices over the barriers to answer questions and articulate their concerns about school safety and gun laws.

When a reporter asked, "Why are you doing this?" there was a chorus of replies.

"I support children and other teens and making their voices heard."

"I wrote to Congress."

"Stricter gun laws."

"I want to feel safe."

Others responded by holding up signs that said:

"We call BS"

"Which of my classmates can the world do without?"

"Am I next?"

"I'm here for 14- to 18-year-olds," said senior Kathryn Harrington, holding up a sign with the hashtag, "#NeverAgain."

"They shouldn't have lost their lives. Guns shouldn't be in the hands of a 19-year-old kid," she said, referring to Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooting suspect.

"Kids have the right to show how they feel, but having these guns around is not helping," said freshman Bailey Hyatt.

Overall, students seemed to have more questions than answers to their concerns about school safety.

"Unfortunately, we didn't get to talk about it in school a lot," said PHS senior Kamea Quetti-Hall, who worked with classmate Makailey Cookis to coordinate Tuesday's walkout.

Quetti-Hall said she remembers a moment of silence after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 students and six adult staff members were killed.

After the Parkland shooting, Quetti-Hall said, "There was no moment of silence at school."

But, she said, kids are talking about it. Quetti-Hall said she thinks a "large majority" of people she talks to "think we need stricter gun control. We're not saying ban guns completely, but we're saying that there should be some check in getting one. It shouldn't be so easy."

Cookis and other students said they'd like to see more security.

"Speaking of my elementary school days, going into a school was very hard. You had to get buzzed in; you had to get signed in; you needed a visitor's pass. Over the years, I think things have changed," said Cookis, noting how such policies have, perhaps unintentionally, become more lax.

Junior Shauna Pettit and classmates Anaziah Williamson and Alexis Garvey carried signs that, together, read, "We should be afraid of our grades dropping not our bodies."

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"Students should not be just sitting there, waiting," Pettit said of lockdown drills. "We need to be taught to be prepared."

Cookis said she'd like to see school officials and community members more involved in schools, not just when something goes wrong.

On Tuesday, she and a few other students took time to shake hands and thank community members who had shown up in solidarity.

"I'm so proud of these kids," said Donna Ostellino, a school bus driver who was one of the first community members to arrive to witness the walkout.

Cookis said her generation tends to be labeled as a "social media generation," but she sees it as a positive, such as for organizing a rally and to connect with other students — something her classmates plan to do more of.

"Our generation is powerful," she said. "We make our movement what we want to and try to better the places we're a part of."

Taconic High School

On the other side of the city, more than 100 Taconic students marched on the sidewalk along Valentine Road to the school's track just after 10 a.m., holding signs and chanting "No more silence."

Passing motorists honked, prompting cheers from students.

After gathering at the bleachers on the track, students held a period of silence in honor of the 17 victims in Parkland.

The students planned speeches during the demonstration, according to organizers, but school district officials kept members of the media so far away, they could not hear what was said. Student organizers did not intend the demonstration to be such a distance from the media, organizer Bryanna McKearney said when reached by text later in the day.

Their goal was to get the word out on gun violence and school safety while standing in solidarity with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said McKearney, an 18-year-old senior.

McKearney also recalled the Newtown shooting in 2012, when her younger brother was in elementary school. "It hit pretty hard," she said. "It was crushing."

McKearney said there should be a national gun policy. State-by-state laws addressing gun control are "not working at all," she said.

Austin Rachiele, an 18-year-old senior, heard about the walkout from another student.

"I thought it was a great idea," he said. "It means a lot — solidarity and safety."

It has started to set in that school shootings can happen to anyone, he said.

"That massacre of the first-graders was horrible," Rachiele said of the Newtown shooting. "It could be anybody. I'm hoping that they hear our voices."

"Enough is enough," said Troy Schweitzer, a 17-year-old senior. "We can't become used to it — to a mass shooting."

There are some people who want guns, and some people who want to get rid of guns.

But there's a compromise, Schweitzer said.

People with the proper training and certification should be able to own guns, but it's not OK that a kid can easily purchase a gun, he said.

Taconic students plan to continue their action in the coming weeks. They hope to hold a demonstration with other schools at Park Square in Pittsfield, said Abigail Mooney, a 17-year-old senior.

Groups of students left the track throughout the morning, but a crowd at least 50 remained until the march back to school at about 11:45 a.m.

On the way, the students chanted, "What do we want? Gun control. When do we want it? Now!"

"I feel unsafe in school, so I want to protest to have gun control," Olivia Chelstowski, a 14-year-old freshman, said as she walked back to school.

Lucie Pond, another 14-year-old freshman, walked next to her.

Pond lived in Mississippi before moving to Pittsfield — she was used to seeing guns there, she said.

"[But] I don't understand people having these big, huge guns," she said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@berkshireeagle.com, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.


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