Portage High School students said their participation in today’s national walkout is not a political statement about gun control.
Students, at least the 16 who formed the school’s walkout committee, would rather start conversations of all kinds, big or small.
“The overall message the walkout is trying to send is that we need to make schools safer and honor the lives lost,” said senior Emma Shortreed, referring to last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The national walkout begins at 10 a.m. and lasts 17 minutes, one minute for each victim. Participating students in Portage said they will hold a moment of silence for the victims, and then some of them will write inspirational messages in chalk after they walk to the high school track. Others will write letters to Congress.
But whatever they choose to do during the walkout, they’ll do it together — the common thread being their promotion of inclusion at their school, students said Friday.
“I think inclusiveness is about making sure everyone has a place in this school, as a community,” said senior Erin Kibby. “We’re really trying to make that a complete and utter truth.”
In general, the students serving on the committee believe it is better to be proactive than reactive, and to be positive, not negative. Among peers, all student opinions have been valued and that will continue even after the walkout, they said.
“It’s not political,” senior Olivia Ryan emphasized.
The student group has listened to everyone, including school staff and community members, Shortreed said. An unnamed teacher from John Muir Elementary, for example, shared in an email a list of ideas for continuing the committee once the walkout is over.
“We could say ‘hi’ to 17 students we haven’t said ‘hi’ to before, or say 17 nice things about somebody,” Shortreed said of the teacher’s tips. “We’d be working on positivity and reaffirming that this peer group is who you grew up with, and that it’s important everyone feels included.”
The group expects to post these tips and other positive messages on its Facebook page after the walkout.
“I think a lot of people work really hard to include everybody,” said senior Dannie Griffey, “but I also think it is hard to include everybody no matter what you do, and that there are people who don’t want to be included.
“So in that sense the walkout is a good way to break barriers. Whether you’re a football player or cheerleader or you swim or you don’t do anything, this (effort) is bringing everyone together.”
Walkout committee members said they believe the overall climate in the school improves each year, thanks in part to their school providing more activities and clubs for students who hold a variety of interests. They also pointed to Principal Robin Kvalo’s willingness to listen to them whenever they have concerns.
In a letter to students and families, Kvalo wrote that she had met with walkout committee members several times and that she would allow the students to participate in the walkout without penalty. Teachers will take attendance before and after the walkout, and police officers will be in the area to ensure student safety. Instruction will continue during the walkout.
“Our No. 1 concern is that all of our students will be safe whether they exercise their right to walk out or stay back in class,” Kvalo said in the letter. “Our hope is to have more discussions that bring families, students, and school personnel together to discuss keeping our students physically and emotionally safe at school. I hope you will participate in this important discussion in the near future. We value your input.”
‘It can happen anywhere’
On Friday morning, Portage schools went into a “secure hold” after a 16-year-old allegedly threatened a student on a school bus. The school’s doors were locked and police were present but classes continued, and walkout committee members said their school handled the situation very well.
“People were nervous — we didn’t really know what was happening (at first), but teachers reassured us and made sure we felt safe,” Ryan said.
Said Kibbey: “We were told the difference between an administrative hold and lockdown. The hold tells us that none of us are in danger right now, that there would be more protocol if we were in danger.”
“Communication was key,” Griffey said.
“I think today showed it can happen anywhere,” Shortreed said. “It won’t just happen in Parkland or a place where a student is expelled. It can happen in a place like Portage.”