By GWEN OREL and ERIN ROLL
Students from numerous Montclair public schools walked out of class last Wednesday, March 14, to take part in a nationally organized walkout to protest gun violence.
More than 1,000 students left Montclair High School, according to students there, and according to a Renaissance Middle School seventh grader, everyone but one student in her class walked out. Students also walked out of Buzz Aldrin Middle School and Hillside Elementary School.
The walkouts were a show of support for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where on Valentine’s Day, 17 students were killed.
The walkouts were peaceful. However, several parents of students at Glenfield Middle School allege their children were threatened with detention for participating in the walkout.
Montclair High School
Ari Westreich, MHS senior class president of the Civics & Government Institute, said that when he walked out and saw a crowd of adults across the street cheering, holding posters, it was really eye-opening. “Seeing so many people was uplifting,” he said.
What happened in Parkland was a wake up call, he said. As Senior Class President Blythe Raine Bahramipour and senior Corinna Davis read the names of the dead he feels sorrow, but he’s also angry.
Sophomore Hana Ackelsberg wore orange and carried flowers to put at a memorial for the murdered students.
“The fight isn’t going to end after the walkout,” Acklesberg said. “The fight isn’t going to end when we take it to Washington. As students, we have a collective power. There’s power in numbers.”
Sophomore Daphne Ansell, who also spoke at the march, said the students just want to feel safe in school.
“I want to spend my time writing essays about ‘Macbeth,’ not talking about what we would do if there was a shooting in my English classroom,” Ansell said. The school refused to allow teachers to participate, possibly out of fear of lawsuits and reprisals, said Senior Corinna Davis, of Students Demand Action. But while teachers couldn’t participate, Davis could see them watching from the window. One of her teachers wrote “#enough” on the windowpane.
“I realized how many people really care about this issue. There were so many signs, so many people wearing orange,” she said.
She set up a memorial to the slain students in front of the school.
“I headed back inside a little bit after everyone else. As I walked in front of the building, I saw people gathering around it and laying down flowers and signs,” Ansell said.
Glenfield Middle School
The day after the walkout, a number of Glenfield parents took to social media voicing concerns about the school administration’s handling of the walkout. Some said students were told going out the front door would be dangerous, while two parents posted on Facebook that the students had been told there was a risk of getting shot if the walkout was held in front of the school.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said that school officials never threatened the students with disciplinary action and no students were given detention for participating in the walkout.
Glenfield sixth-grader parent Gina Shaw said the school attempted to direct students out into a courtyard behind the school for a 17-minute silent protest.
However, a group of students went out the front door and gathered in front of the building during the walkout.
Shaw contends there were threats of detention. When her daughter and some friends attempted to go out the front door for the walkout were blocked by Glenfield Principal Dr. Joseph Putrino, Shaw said. In the end, her daughter decided not to participate in the walkout.
“I’m disappointed that it didn’t receive more support from the administration,” Shaw said.
Pinsak said Dr. Putrino did encourage students to go out to the enclosed courtyard, as that’s where security had been set up. “I am not going to pretend that we didn’t have safety concerns for our students, but all principals agreed they wanted to support the decisions students made as best they could,” said Pinsak.
In a letter sent home to Glenfield parents on March 12, parents were told students would be discouraged from leaving the building. “However ….Glenfield students and the administration have designed a safe and secure process for those students who choose to participate…. staff and security aides will be strategically stationed to provide a safe environment for all. If students leave the building, they must remain on school property,” Putrino wrote.
As of Thursday afternoon, March 15, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey had not received any complaints regarding the Montclair school district, according to spokesperson Elyla Huerta.
“Because the law in most places requires students to go to school, schools can discipline you for missing class. But what they can’t do is discipline you more harshly because of the political nature of or the message behind your action,” the ACLU says in its advice section for students on its website.
Additionally, several colleges and universities announced in the weeks before the walkout that if any high school seniors who had been accepted were disciplined, the schools’ disciplinary action would not affect the students’ admission status.
Renaissance Middle School
Twelve-year-old Anjel Fierst organized the walkout at Renaissance Middle School. Of the 300 students in the school, about 250 walked out. In her seventh grade class, only one student stayed inside, Fierst said.
Fierst decided to organize the walkout after she heard about the nationwide walkouts planned on the news. The principal and teachers were supportive, she said, but Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak was not.
On Feb. 22, Pinsak sent a letter to Montclair families, caregivers and staff, letting them know that the school would not endorse the march, out of concern for student safety. Fierst found her concern ironic, since safety is “the point of the whole movement.”
Fierst, like some students at Glenfield Middle School, decided to walk out the front door anyway. While it will be a few years before the 12-year-old can vote, she felt the importance of drawing attention to gun control issues. When she began organizing among her classmates, the most common question she was asked was “What is the NRA?”
Shortly after the shooting, Fierst was talking to a friend about what had happened in Parkland, and what they would do if something like that happened in Montclair. “It’s a part of our culture now,” she said.