Ready for walkouts: Area student leaders organize around issue of gun violence

Inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church Sunday afternoon, GPS student Nikki Goldbach, back left, directs during a breakout session of students discussing plans for the National Student Walkout on Wednesday, March 14. Katelyn Burns, back right, is a student at Sequoyah Vocational. Baylor student Trey Lydon, near right, passes his laptop to another student.

In the weeks since 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students across the nation have been speaking out about school safety and gun violence.

Survivors of the shooting marched on Florida's Capitol, called on lawmakers, and called out the National Rifle Association. They also influenced a gun reform bill that Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last week. Thousands of students across Florida - and the nation - have rallied to protest gun violence, and a call for a National Student Walkout was heard and planned for today.

And here in Chattanooga, a small group of students, inspired by the actions of the Parkland teens, has been meeting and planning.

"We've seen that high schoolers, though we aren't 'real constituents' because we can't vote, can make change," said Nikki Goldbach, a senior at Girls Preparatory School. Goldbach is one of the steering committee members of a new organization in Chattanooga, Students Leading Change, that has cropped up since the Parkland shooting.

Facilitated by pastors of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga, the group has organized students from more than a dozen local schools and formed five working groups around particular issues. The students have been planning their individual schools' walkouts, organizing Chattanooga's March for Our Lives event later this month, writing letters and making calls to lawmakers (and editors and news outlets), and are attempting to organize a town hall with elected officials and candidates.

Goldbach and her classmate Ameera Bhatti, also a senior at GPS, helped organized the school's walkout.

They say planning and taking action have helped them channel anger and frustration into something positive.

"We are so desensitized as a culture," Goldbach said. "I think the students' reaction garnered a larger reaction."

As school districts and school administrators have taken varying positions on student walkouts and how to handle them, student leaders have had to balance visions or rules laid out by administration and the desires of the student body.

Allen Liu, a senior at the McCallie School and a steering committee member of Students Leading Change, has been planning the McCallie walkout. Despite some students' desire for a more politically charged event, Wednesday's walkout will be seen as a time to honor the victims at Parkland, in accordance with the school's desire.

"Fundamentally, the message is what we wanted," Liu said. However, Liu is leading the push to organize a letter-writing campaign for students calling on elected officials to be more transparent, to enact better gun control laws and to even discuss gun violence at all.

Liu, like many of the kids empowered by this movement, recognizes that because of who they are and where they go to school - mostly private and middle class, largely white suburban public schools - they represent only one part of the dynamic issue of gun violence.

"Society normalizes violence in urban, inner-city schools," Liu said. "That's something that's especially more hidden to kids with privilege mass shootings are framed as a middle-class or upper-middle-class issue. I'd love to change the optics around the issue."

Whether school administration has had a hand in framing the message of today's walkouts, most student leaders agree that the walkouts' foremost mission is to honor the victims of Parkland and other mass shootings, and to inspire dialogue.

"I believe that [today] should be focused on the victims, and not about getting involved in arguing about gun laws," said Rachel Ruano, a senior at Ooltewah High School and student organizer for UnifiEd.

At STEM School, a Hamilton County magnet school on Chattanooga State Community College's campus, students plan to light candles for each of the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting - something the administration had to clear.

"This is a completely student-led thing, administration let us know that we had their support," said Kalena Rodriguez, a senior at STEM School. "Our overall goal is to make the student body at STEM aware of exactly what happened and also to remember the victims, so for each minute we will be saying [a] victim's name and saying something about them. It will be purely in remembrance of the victims of Parkland."

Though some area school districts have announced that students will not be allowed to take part or will be punished for participating in walkouts, Hamilton County Schools officials issued a series of recommendations to school principals on how to handle planned walkouts, such as working with students to plan non-disruptive activities and events.

"As a district, we are not endorsing a walkout; however, we understand the significance of recent events and our students' desire to have their voices heard and we will work with them to make this a safe and valuable learning experience," Johnson said in a statement when the recommendations were released.

Those recommendations included ensuring faculty is informed and there is adequate staffing during that time period, encouraging school administrations to work with student leadership groups to organize and plan events, and encouraging student leaders to plan an activity to honor the lives lost in the Parkland shooting.

Ooltewah Middle School and Soddy-Daisy Middle School both have confirmed such events.

Johnson has said that the one of the district's biggest concerns is the safety of its students, even while they are participating in a coordinated walkout.

"We are working with student leaders and teachers to ensure students can express themselves through peaceful assembly in a way that protects the safety of every student, including those who both do and do not participate, and respects the views of every member of our school community," said Russell Dyer, director of Cleveland City Schools.

Superintendent Jan Harris of Dade County Schools in Georgia, while echoing other superintendents' statements on student safety, said Dade County Schools was "proud" of its student leaders.

"We want them to be able to have the opportunity to express themselves, and we're proud of those who do want to walk and respect those who don't," Harris said. Dade County High has a variety of activities planned for students during what Principal James Fahrney has deemed a 20-minute "timeout" from 10-10:20 a.m. Wednesday.

Catoosa and Walker county schools also are allowing student-led walkouts or providing alternative activities, along with Marion and Polk county schools. Sequatchie and Whitfield County, Ga., school districts, however, have said students officially will not be allowed to walk out.

Whether or not they will be allowed to, or even will, walk out, students from across the region have expressed that they all feel similarly about one issue - they don't always feel safe at school, and they shouldn't feel that way.

"It's not 'Oh my god, there was a school shooting,' it's 'Oh my god, it's happening again,'" said Eve Higdon, a junior at STEM School. "We sit around with your group of friends and talk about what we would really do if there was a shooter, and that isn't something we should have to talk about."

Rodriguez said she and her friends also often talk about what they would do if an active shooter came into their classroom.

"I think it's hard for any student anywhere in high schools to really say they feel safe at this point because of what's happening; it's not really what just happened in Parkland but everywhere," Rodriguez said. "It's sort of become the elephant in the room."

Clay Thomas, one of the pastors at Rivermont Presbyterian who felt inspired to help students convene and organize around the issue, said that he hopes the conversation about school safety and gun violence and schools could expand.

"From the get-go, I was hoping that the energy around addressing mass shootings in school would spill out over to addressing gun violence in Chattanooga that affects young people every day here," Thomas said. "There's a desire among student leaders to make it about more than mass shootings that would be an amazing breakthrough."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.