CHATHAM — Chatham students plan to walk out of class later this month to protest gun violence at school in the wake of the recent deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida.
They’re joining a growing national student-led activist movement to demand tighter gun control, one week after the Catskill High School Students For Change announced their walkout. But activists at Chatham High School are more focused on unifying a divided student body.
The student group, under the name CHS Youth Empowerment Walkout, is joining the Enough National School Walkout movement led by Women’s March organizers, at 10 a.m. on March 14. The protest is planned to last 17 minutes, one minute for each victim of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.
“Even at this really small school in the country, there are still people who are going to feel that anger, it’s not specific to one type of place,” said 12th grade Chatham co-organizer Elisheva Malfatto.
Based on interest, Malfatto estimated there could be as many as 80 students participating, though it may not look like a walkout. Students are working with the administration, including Chatham School District Superintendent Salvatore DeAngelo, to protest in a way that fits within the school’s conduct policy.
“As educators we support our students in their opinions,” said DeAngelo. “We recognize their need to want to be a part of this movement and exercise their First Amendment right and voice.” But DeAngelo is hoping to strike a balance between giving students a platform and maintaining safe and orderly conduct. “If a student would walk out today, there would be consequences. We’re trying to consistently apply rules on a daily basis.”
Malfatto is trying to take the focus off the highly divisive issue of gun control and help students express themselves in the wake of national tragedy and find agency to determine what comes next.
“We do live in the country where a lot of students take gun laws very personally,” Malfatto said Wednesday afternoon, adding that she’s had a backlash from some students. But the walkout at Chatham is focused on uniting, she said, encouraging participation among students with different opinions. “Everyone should be able to care about the lives of human beings, of students, and recognize that families are being ruined just because we aren’t comfortable admitting that something is really wrong right now,” she said.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. John Faso expressed concern over the protest methodology. “Participation by our young people in public issues, such as school safety in light of the Florida school shooting, is very important and should be encouraged. However, I don’t think it is advisable to leave class to express these opinions, as this will cause the loss of valuable academic time for all our students. Better to participate in such activities after school or on weekends.”
But on a national scale, the Enough National School Walkout movement specifically targets “Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods. We need action,” according to the group’s literature.
Other students leaving the Chatham campus on Wednesday expressed support for the walkout, and a student’s right to affect national policy.
“Kids our age and older have a grip on what’s happening, especially if we watch the news,” said 9th grader Jacob Rippel, who has conversations with his parents about gun safety and world events at the dinner table.
Though there has never been an incident at Chatham High School, according to DeAngelo, the administration is on alert for copycat threats after the shooting in Parkland. The school sent notices to parents and students about their counseling services, and reminded teachers to watch for atypical signs of anxiety and depression in students.
“I think we should get guns out of the school,” 8th grader Elise Yhler said, but she added she feels safe with a security presence in the hallways.
Malfatto fervently stands by maintaining rights for all people, and she said she believes making firearms harder to purchase would make a difference in school shooting incidents. “There are valid arguments about why guns aren’t the main issue, but you can’t immediately murder 17 people with a knife,” she said.
For Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett, the foundation of school safety is built on trust between armed officers and students. Bartlett’s Student Resource Officer program, which began in the district in 2014, employs a full-time, armed deputy with an office inside Taconic Hills and Ichabod Crane district schools. The Student Resource Deputies teach safety courses, interact with students and work on school committees. Their salaries are funded half by the school district and half by Columbia County.
“They don’t just roam the halls; they deal with kids in crisis,” Bartlett said. “The kids trust the deputy, when they see these guys and girls on a daily basis.”
This week resource deputies responded to and neutralized a potentially threatening video circulating around Ichabod Crane School. “We investigated but it didn’t result in criminal charges,” Bartlett said.
The Chatham Central School District shares a part-time deputy with New Lebanon Central, and Hudson City and Germantown Central School Districts share another officer. The roaming deputies split their time between schools and patrol duty, and their salary is funded entirely by the county, said Bartlett, who has been pushing superintendents to adopt the full-time program. “In today’s day and age, it’s needed.”
But the question of who is qualified to defend students from an active shooter is being batted around by elected officials and advocates nationwide, after President Donald Trump advocated for an incentive program for arming teachers with firearms experience to defend students from an active shooter, according to the New York Times wire service.
But critics counter this approach could result in unintended shooting deaths. “I think gun control needs to be taken care of but I don’t think teachers should have guns,” said 9th grader Jacob Rippel, adding it could give students a chance to grab weapons even as a joke.
“It’s complicated,” said Bartlett, who is a state firearms instructor. “If someone does have a firearm they have to be properly trained and understand if they let that round go downrange there’s a lot of innocent people that could be hit. There’s a lot of stuff you have to think about in that millisecond before you fire. And there’s no taking that round back.”