PHOTO: Sophomore Alana Boisvert reading about Alyssa Alhadeff.  Photo taken by sophomore Zoe Kukowski

SANDY HOOK – Students at MAST, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, joined in the nationwide school walkout Wednesday commemorating the Valentine’s Day shooting in Florida on the one-month anniversary of the incident, one of more than an estimated 2,500 walkouts that stemmed from the Women’s March Youth Empower organization.

Unlike many other walkouts, students at MAST worked in coordination and cooperation with faculty members to ensure their walkout would have specific meaning and bring about positive change within the school community.

 

PHOTO:  Freshman Marguerite McWeeney laying a rose down to remember Helena Ramsay. Photo by Zoe KukowskiFreshman Marguerite McWeeney laying a rose down to remember Helena Ramsay. Photo by Zoe Kukowski

While most schools used the walkout to protest school shootings or urge stricter gun control, the MAST community came together to show support for the people who lost their lives and the families who lost their loved ones.  A total of 154 students of the 279 students enrolled at MAST, and 272 in attendance that day, participated in the 20-minute long ceremony. In a show of unity, many students who participated wore the nationally designated color, orange, for their walkout.

The walkout was the idea of two sophomore students, Alana Boisvert of Woodbridge and Elizabeth Ellis of Ocean Township. The students called for a meeting of representatives from all four grades to discuss specific opinions and ideas for what would be the most enlightening and meaningful program. They invited principal Earl Moore and social studies teacher Michael Ellithorpe to attend the meeting. Sophomore Erin Horbacz of Ocean Township also sold bracelets to raise funds to help the victims of the shooting and their families, and the senior class worked with their class advisor to create orange ribbons for students to wear to show their support of the peaceful walkout and the Youth Empower organization.

“Our purpose was to support safety,” said Alana, “and to honor those people who lost their lives. We did not want to bring politics into it but wanted to show how working together as a community makes us stronger and better.”

PHOTO:  Senior Kali Kennedy reading for Nicholas Dworet.  Photo by Zoe Kukowski

“The students worked hard to make the focus of the event non-political, “Moore said, in praise of the student activity. “They know everyone has different political views, and not all of them agree; they wanted to do something that would bring the school together... send a message that everyone can get behind. We can all agree, as educators and as students, that events like this create teachable moments about responsible civic engagement, collaboration, and the strength communities have when they come together.”  Moore added the MAST students wanted to show that armed with tolerance, respect and peace, they can show how to build a stronger community. “I think they’ve done it.”

While the nationwide walkout was called for 10 a.m., Moore and the students agreed a 9:13 a.m. walkout would cause the least disruption to their classes and be equally effective. That is the daily private reading period when all students are encouraged to spend the time reading the literature of their choice, be it newspapers, novels, history, or poetry apart from any school work or assignments.

As the bell rang, students poured quietly and orderly from each of the several buildings where they were in class, and all moved without saying a word to an open but secured courtyard. There, with teachers forming a protective perimeter, some facing inward, others facing the roads, and with National Park security vehicles forming an exterior protective boundary, the students gathered in a circle around a central area encircled with benches. Seventeen students individually stepped up on one of the benches and said the name and a brief biography of each of those killed Feb. 14; the rest of the moment reserved for each honoree was observed in silence, before the next name was called and the procedure reenacted once again. As each student spoke, he or she placed an orange rose in the center of the courtyard. Following the ceremony, the flowers were moved to a rock bed near the courtyard and will serve as a memorial for whose who have passed away.

PHOTO:  Sophomore Erin Horbacz reading for Jaime Guttenburg.  Photo by Zoe Kukowski

By the end of the 17 minutes, many students were in tears, some appeared to be overpowered emotionally by the impact, and all quietly turned and silently walked back to their respective buildings to continue the day’s schedule.

“I think the silence was so impactful because it gave each of us time to really consider what happened in Florida, and actually think about it” said Alana. Elizabeth noted that the event was even better and more meaningful than she had thought it would be. “I think the teachers were proud of us,” she said, “and we have not heard any negative comments at all. People hear of something tragic happening and say, ‘that’s a shame.’ But we could do something, we could show how the community working together, teacher and student alike, can accomplish great things.”  Both organizers added that “you don’t really realize these things can happen, then you realize if it happened there, it could happen here.”

PHOTO:  Sophomore Elizabeth Ellis reading for Meadow Pollack.  Photo by Zoe Kukowski

Since the students began organizing the event three weeks ago, several positive events have happened. In response to a GoFundMe page set up by the victims’ family and friends to raise money to pay for funeral expenses, MAST’s community showed its own support for the students and faculty at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  Sophomore Erin Horbacz, Ocean Township, sold orange wristbands imprinted with the words “#NEVER AGAIN.” The bracelets were sold to students and faculty this week, and at the time of the walkout, more than $200 had been raised, with all profits going to the GoFundMe page.  Each of the classes donated funds to underwrite the cost of the bracelets; however, Erin’ and her parents chose to cover the cost themselves and have the class donations go directly to the fund. 

The walkout also sparked a discussion over ways to make MAST a safer place for students and teachers. Many teachers opened class time to discuss any new safety measures along with ways to improve current measures. As a result of the various discussions MAST has explored possibilities and added new measures to help the students feel more secure.

PHOTO:   Flowers of Remembrance laid as a memorial.  Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

Moore said the far-reaching benefits of the day include the faculty’s ability to use the event as “a teachable moment. It is our role as educators to incorporate learning into real world experiences and into the lives of the students. It is important for students to learn how to engage in respectful civic demonstrations and to show ways to build the community. They showed respect for their school schedules and commitment by using a safer and less disruptive time for the walkout; they sent the message of proper civic discourse, they are positive in their desire to show the effects of a community that works together.”