In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which resulted in the deaths of 17 individuals, groups of students across the country have declared March 14 a national school walkout day to protest gun violence. And that activism has now reached the Upstate.
Twenty local students — 18 high schoolers and two college students — have come together to organize under March For Our Lives Greenville, “a sister movement of the national March For Our Lives created by survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting,” according to a news release.
In addition to planning a march in downtown Greenville on Saturday, March 24, that will coincide with the national March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., the group is “coordinating efforts for the national school walkout on Wednesday, March 14.”
These walkouts align with the Enough! National School Walkout organized by the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER. The event’s Facebook page reads, in part, that the walkout is to “demand Congress [to] pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets, and in our homes and places of worship.”
But the wishes of students to participate in a walkout have raised “safety concerns” for Greenville County Schools, says Superintendent W. Burke Royster.
“Allowing students to walk out of a secure building en masse at a predetermined, publicized time poses a security risk,” Royster told the Greenvillle Journal.
“We have spoken with all the law enforcement agencies that serve Greenville County, and they all share our belief that a walkout poses a safety threat,” he said. “Additionally, a walkout in support of gun reform legislation could provoke a simultaneous walkout in support of gun ownership rights, which could easily lead to violence and unrest at school.”
These safety concerns, which were previously relayed to students late last month, prompted some members of the March For Our Lives Greenville committee to attend a Feb. 27 school board meeting and request that the school district “plan a concrete plan regarding the walkouts, because they will be happening,” said Avi Goldstein-Mittag, 20, the organizing committee’s chair. Goldstein-Mittag, who is originally from Spartanburg, is a Princeton University student currently working in the Upstate during a gap year.
“Our response [to the safety concerns] was that these walkouts are happening anyway. Make them safe and incorporate them into your plan,” Goldstein-Mittag said.
“I believe there are ways to make a walkout happen,” he added.
Per Royster, middle and high school principals within the district have been asked to meet with student leadership “to determine how or if the students want to participate.”
He added, “Whatever officially occurs at our schools will be student-determined and student-led, within the parameters we have set.”
Regarding the question of whether or not students will be disciplined for walking out, such as receiving an unexcused absence, Royster said, “It depends on the circumstances, but if a student simply chooses to walk out of his classroom, but comes right back in after 17 minutes, he will receive a warning for cutting class.”
The possibility of receiving a penalty for walking out is ultimately not a deterrent for group members, says Lizzie Diaz, a senior at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and the committee’s communications chair. (Editor’s note: SCHSAH is not part of Greenville County Schools.)
“That’s the thing: It’s so serious that we don’t care if we’re punished,” she says. “A lot of us are straight-A students, A’s and B’s; I was just nominated senior superlative teacher’s pet.” She explains that many of the students on the committee are actively involved in their schools and communities and have spent much of their lives striving to be model students and citizens. For anyone who would question why these students would risk their sterling reputations to participate in the walkout, Diaz has a simple answer: “We feel it’s that important that we don’t care if we get suspended.”
Julie Allen, dean and VP of arts and academics at the Governor’s School, told the Greenville Journal the school has had “some conversations among both faculty and staff and with our student leadership. Above and beyond, we want to make sure our students have a political voice and feel those voices can be heard. We value very much the process of civic engagement.”
She added that the Governor’s School will offer a student-led opportunity on the morning of March 14 to have their voices be heard prior to the start of classes. The school also “recognizes students’ desire to be part of a national movement,” Allen said.
“If a student chooses to participate in a walkout, that is their right. We recommend they congregate in the amphitheater on campus. When they return to class, they will be welcomed, and instruction will be going on,” Allen said. “If a student is late to class more than 15 minutes, it counts as an unexcused absence.” The school has an established policy for handling unexcused absences, she added, and the penalty for students who walkout will not be stronger than the response to any other unexcused absence.
Maxine Blech, a senior at Christ Church Episcopal School and volunteer chair of March For Our Lives Greenville, says “the school has really been behind us and supporting us and what we want to do.”
“They’re totally in support of us,” she says. “They just want to make sure everyone is safe and that it is organized and not chaotic. Our personal walkout will be the same as around the country … and for 17 minutes.”
Blech says that a student committee at CCES distilled the purpose of the walkout into three principles: to show an awareness of the problem, to show respect and remember those who lost their lives in the Parkland shooting, and to stand in solidarity.
“The walkout [at CCES] is not a stance on how it [gun violence] should be solved, but we want to show there is a problem and that we want the adults in government to fix it,” Blech says.
Bella Kitsos, a senior at Wade Hampton High School and a March For Our Lives Greenville committee member, says she feels participating in a walkout at her school is “really important.”
“Schools are all about finding yourself and using your voice, but when something important comes up, and we want to do it, they aren’t for it,” she says.
For Kitsos, the March 14 school walkouts and March 24 downtown march carry a dual purpose. “I kind of took it as two things: in memory of the ones who have been lost due to violence, whether at school or due to gun violence in general. I feel like we need to take a stand. All these shootings keep happening, and nothing gets done. It just keeps going and going on. It’s very infuriating. It’s students standing together and saying, like I said, ‘Enough is enough.’”
The following Upstate schools are represented on the Greenville March For Our Lives organizing committee:
Greenville High School
Christ Church Episcopal
Daniel High School
Boiling Springs High School
Brashier Middle College
Wade Hampton High School
Southside High School
Mauldin High School
St. Joseph’s Catholic School
Cindy Landrum contributed to this report.