Last Wednesday at 9:55am, more than a hundred Lowell high school students left their classrooms and gathered in the school gym. There, they spent 17 minutes, mostly in silence, to remember the victims of the school shooting that occurred a month earlier at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
It was a student-led event that sparked controversy. One prominent parent took to Facebook saying the walk-out was intended to pressure Congress to pass gun control legislation and calling the school’s decision to allow students to use the gym a “dangerous precedent for public schools.”
However, 18 year-old Annelise Kolp takes issue with those who would characterize the walk-out as politically motivated. Kolp, a Lowell High School senior, organized the event along with a friend. “It wasn’t a political thing,” she says. “It was about solidarity for all those students that died.”
So how did an event that was about silence and solidarity get pegged as a rally cry for gun control? To understand that, you need to know about the National School Walk-Out.
National School Walk-Out Blurs Issue
The National School Walk-Out was organized by Women’s March Youth EMPOWER. The advocacy group was encouraging students to walk out of classes on March 14, and they did have a political motive.
An online description of their event read: We need action. Students and allies are organizing the national school walkout to demand Congress pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.
Kolp says students at some schools may have been planning to turn the walk-out into a push for gun control, but that was never her intention. “I thought it would just be nice to pay respects to the people [killed],” she says.
While Kolp was aware that the National School Walk-Out would be going on at the same time, she made a conscious decision not to associate with it. She did not register the Lowell walk-out with the National School Walk-Out website, and the flyers she created specified the Lowell walk-out would be “A nonpolitical way to pay respect to the 17 people murdered in the Parkland Shooting.”
Details of the Lowell Walk-Out
March 14 marked one month since the Florida shooting, and in the weeks prior, Kolp had heard talk about how students at various schools around the country would be memorializing the day. When it didn’t appear any of her classmates were organizing an event, Kolp and her friend decided to do something themselves.
Kolp didn’t want to catch teachers and staff by surprise on the day of the walk-out so she met with Principal Amy Pallo in advance. “Her main concerns were about making it about guns and dividing the school,” Kolp says. However, school administrators were also concerned about the prospect of students walking out of the building or off-campus. A decision was made to give students access to the gym.
On the day of the walk-out, students who choose to participate left their classrooms at 9:55am to gather in the gym at 10am. Despite Kolp’s attempts to keep out politics, some of her classmates did see it as being about gun control. A group of students wearing National Rifle Association t-shirts stood outside the gym with arms crossed as those participating entered the room.
Once inside, volunteers read the name of each person killed in the Parkland shooting. One minute was allotted for each person, and after each name was read, the remainder of the minute was spent in silence.
Participation in the walk-out was voluntary, and Kolp warned her fellow students they might get marked absent for attending. She estimates there were 100-200 participants and notes that everyone remained silent and didn’t use their cell phones during the service. After the last name had been read and the 17 minutes had passed, students returned to their classrooms.
Meanwhile, a group of Lowell Middle School students also left their classrooms at 10am for their own memorial event. School administrators were not told of these students’ plans in advance, but staff directed them to the cafeteria where they remained for 17 minutes in silence.
Students Receive Social Media Backlash
Not everyone was pleased with the walk-out. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a parent of Lowell students and the Kent County Clerk and Register of Deeds, posted a letter to the district on her government Facebook page on March 15. In it, she criticized Lowell Area Schools for seeming to sanction an event that coincided with the National School Walk-Out.
Lowell Area Schools Superintendent Greg Pratt responds there was no agenda other than to keep students safe. “As high school students came forward with a plan to have a memorial for the victims of the Parkland shooting, administrators coordinated with students to ensure that a safe and orderly environment was available,” he says. “It was a priority to have the least amount of disruption to the educational environment.”
Posthumus Lyons’s Facebook post was shared more than 120 times and garnered nearly 90 comments, with many people agreeing with her views. One student who organized the Lowell walk-out declined to be interviewed by Lowell’s First Look out of fear of further social media backlash.
Meanwhile, Kolp, who is a hunter and torn on the issue of gun control, wants to set the record straight. “Yes, other schools had it about guns,” she says. “We did it to show respect for [the dead].”
Issue May Not Be Over Yet
Muddying the waters is a different walk-out for Lowell listed on the website for the political group Indivisible. The online description for this event states it is intended to mark the anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting on April 20.
Posthumus Lyons references this event as the catalyst for her posting her letter on Facebook. However, Lowell’s First Look has been unable to verify who, if anyone, is organizing that event. When contacted, a member of the Lowell Indivisible chapter wasn’t aware of anyone in her group planning it.
As for Kolp, she says she’s not interested in dictating a specific response to tragedies such as the Parkland shooting. However, her goal in organizing the walk-out was to raise awareness with her classmates and start a discussion about how best to address the problem – whether that be through changing laws, improving access to mental health services or simply trying to be a better friend to those on the margins.
“I didn’t want to force any ideas on anyone or make anyone feel uncomfortable,” she says. “We all should have to opportunity to look at the facts and make our own decisions about what we believe.”