SHIRLEY -- Police cruisers, lights flashing, cordoned off the main entrance at the Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School last Wednesday morning as students stood outside in a biting March wind for 17 minutes. Not an emergency evacuation or a fire drill, the gathering was a staged event, a walkout.
Organized by a group of Student Council members and sanctioned by the school administration, the ASMS Walkout was one of several such events at schools across the region, calling for change after a Florida school shooting last month in which 17 people were killed.
The area walkouts echoed a sweeping movement nationwide but were not necessarily cut from the same cloth. Some of the walkouts were protests, with students leaving school grounds, risking penalties and demanding stricter gun control laws. Others -- like the local event -- espoused humanitarian goals and adhered to administrative parameters.
The day after the middle school walkout, four student organizers, seventh graders Justin Cullinan, Ellen Lopes, Ana Sanchez and Sophia Brown, met with a reporter in Principal Roberta Aikey's office to talk about the event, their goals, and what comes next.
Aikey was all for it, with the supperintendent's support, "She even came here to meet with them," she said.
The students told her it was no "one shot deal," Aikey said, adding that the four students had approached her about holding a student-led assembly to promote inclusiveness.
Like their peers across the country, these students want elected officials to hear their voices now, although it will be years before they can vote. "We wanted to let Congress know," said Justin. Asked what he thought lawmakers could do, he said they could create laws to add more "safety precautions" in schools.
That said, laws can't do it all. "People break the law," he said. "I feel like it's...that isolated, lonely kid."
Like the young man who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Or another young man who killed more than two dozen people at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"I feel the same way," Sophia said. "Students can be more open, reach out to talk to the troubled kid."
As the conversation continued, their views veered toward the same premise: If the problem can be traced to the loner who is shut out, drops out or gets kicked out and someday becomes a school shooter, it might be solved by the students themselves.
As they see the issue, it's not gun violence, despite it's "huge role" in the school shootings. It's the cause they want to address. Mental health, yes, but at their level, in their realm, it's more personal. "What you say to someone can impact what they do," the four students said.
Justin talked about their plan for a student assembly based on that message, which they started talking about after the walkout. He sketched a slide show presentation in which each of them has a say."It's about awareness... but about change, too," he said.
Aikey said the walkout was voluntary but most students came, estimating turnout at 60-70-percent. "During the speeches, everyone was silent," she said.
Justin wrote a speech, which he read at the walkout. It reads, in part, "Years ago, when something like this (mass school shooting) would happen, it would be a shock, now people just have a small memorial and forget about it. But this should not be forgotten."
"This walkout isn't just an excuse to get out of school for 17 minutes," he said. "This is our voice."
Justin's speech advocated speaking out about school safety and working together to "watch out for each other."
"We are gathered here this morning to protest...against gun (violence) and (to promote) school safety," he said, while also "raising awareness" for those who died in theshooting.Nothing could bring back the people killed in the attack, he said, but students should ask themselves, "what can I...do?" so it won't happen again. Rather than pray or post chain mail on snaphat about a bullying episode that might have led to someone's suicide, they should think about the problems others outside your social circle might be going through "No student should feel unsafe at our school," he said.
Justin concluded his speech with a quote from a favorite poster: "I should feel lucky that I came to school, not that I came home alive."