NJ Spotlight

Students walking out at Hillsborough High School


Thousands of students across New Jersey walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. yesterday to protest gun violence and call on legislators to enact stricter gun-control measures. And, as part of a highly coordinated effort, hundreds of social media-savvy teens worked tirelessly to amplify their message.

At each high school, students wore orange and left classes for 17 minutes — one minute for each of the lives lost in the shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in February. Some schools held a moment of silence, and others released balloons as the names of the victims were read aloud.

Speaking at a Paramus High School press event, Gov. Phil Murphy applauded the students’ efforts. “You are doing what our generation has failed to do. You are proving us to be inadequate and that’s the way it should be,” he said.

Shortly after the Florida massacre, the organizers behind the Women’s March Youth Empower branch called for a mass student walkout across the country on March 14. They established a logo, website, and system by which students could register their schools to host a walkout; they also provided a toolkit of information about how to communicate with administrators and connect with other schools in the area. According to their map, more than 200 schools in New Jersey were registered to host walkouts, but students estimate many more may have participated without registering.

The Youth Empower group may have provided a helpful infrastructure, but according to New Jersey students, teens across the country had already had enough and were eager to start a movement of their own.

Phone, Facebook, Instagram

“I’m already an activist in my community, and when my friend saw the Women’s March post she immediately sent it to me, and I was like ‘hell yeah,’” Matthew Skolar said. He’s 15 and a sophomore at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. He helped organize his school’s walkout and registered more than 40 students to vote in the next election cycle.

“I got on the phone and started scheduling meetings with the principal and board of education. I started a Facebook page and an Instagram page and followed everyone at school. After that, word traveled quickly.”

Eddie Alvarado, 17, a senior who organized the walkout at Elizabeth High School said he too has always been outspoken and politically active. Alvarado said he has siblings in lower grades in the state which made this cause one he could not ignore. He said that while New Jersey certainly has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, this movement was much bigger than just his high school or just his state.

“It's scary to think that the people you love could be affected. We already have gun violence in our communities, but we've truly disregarded the issue on a national scale and the body count continues to rise. It’s sad that this had to be the wake-up call but I’m glad that we fought today. I’m glad students chose to dissent,” Alvarado said.

Both Eddie and Matthew, counties apart, registered their walkouts and began pouring every spare moment into planning, promoting, and preparing for them. They documented administrators’ responses on their Instagram pages, recorded meeting minutes, and shared sign-making ideas. During the protests, they took photos and videos and livestreamed the events for the world to see.

The student organizers at South Plainfield High School (SPHS) took it a step further and essentially formed their own PR firm: One student was in charge of updating the social media accounts, another was in charge of talking to school administrators, and a third was in charge of talking to the press.

Hailey Medina, 17, was the designated press liaison for SPHS because, as she put it, “I have decent people skills and can get the point across for all of us.” Medina, an aspiring journalism student, said she has never used her email more than she has these past few weeks. Many media outlets and influential community members did not take her seriously because of her age, she said, even when she used a “sophisticated political voice.” Eventually, she drummed up enough attention to draw a small press crowd to the walkout.

Medina said she spent her lunch period yesterday doing Skype interviews in the library and responding to press emails in the halls between classes.

“People kept telling me, ‘no one’s going to see [our walkout] so what’s the point.’ So, I said, ‘we’ll see about that,’” Medina said.

To some, the idea of students taking a scheduled, brief walk around the campus, in cooperation with teachers and law enforcement, does not constitute much of a protest. For the students, however, the walkout was much bigger than just a walk down the street: They said it’s a tiny piece of a national movement.

‘This is big. This is happening’

“Social media played a huge role,” Skolar said. “The principal wasn’t supportive at first but then he saw our Facebook event and realized this is national. This is big. This is happening.”

Indeed, a search for the hashtag #NJSchoolWalkout or #NationalSchoolWalkout brings up a stream of video clips, quotes, and photos from protests around the country. Some of the posts come from journalists documenting the scene while others are linked to students, parents, and teachers announcing their stance on the movement.

At Elizabeth High School, Alvarado said the administration recognized the potential of social media and tried to quash it before it began, saying any student caught recording the walkout would face punishment. According to Alvarado — who had permission from school officials to stream the protest online — one student was suspended for unauthorized use of his phone.

“Social media gives us a voice,” Alvarado said. “It brings awareness and allows us to communicate that our administration is not allowing us to exercise our rights. We will use whatever nonviolent methods we have.”

Restrictions on protests

While most New Jersey schools cooperated with student activists during the walkout, a few administrators, fearing for student safety, set restrictions on protests and offered alternative options for students. At Elizabeth, the principal required students to bring a signed permission slip stating their intent to leave and officials set up an assembly featuring speeches by state Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) and others. In South Plainfield, administrators also set up an assembly and required those who walked out to sign back in, threatening in-school suspensions for those who chose to leave class.

Sayreville War Memorial High School threatened to suspend students who walked out, eliciting a denunciation from the ACLU. Rosa Rodriguez was the only student in Sayreville who walked out yesterday; she told reporters she didn’t care if she was suspended, the issue was too important to her.

Not all students protested in the same way. At Donovan Catholic High School in Toms River, students remained in the gym and held a prayer service for the Parkland victims.

While the walkout movement was spearheaded and dominated by students, other major organizations offered their support. At University Hospital in Newark, 3,000 flags were planted to represent the victims of gun violence treated at the hospital since the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012. Viacom television networks — including Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and Comedy Central — broadcast 17 minutes of silence at 10 a.m., projecting a message in honor of the victims of the Parkland shooting.

More marches

Many students are showing no signs of slowing down. After school on Wednesday, students from Hillsborough, Pingry, Hunterdon, and other schools held a rally outside of the Somerset County courthouse in Somerville advocating for commonsense gun control on a federal level.

They called for attendance at the March for Our Lives event in Newark on March 24, as well as at the NJ Capitol March for Gun Safety in Trenton on April 2. The Trenton march will feature speeches by former Sen. Ray Lesniak, Sens. Shirley Turner and Nia H. Gill, as well as parents who lost students to gun violence, and activists from across the state.

“The National School Walkout, the March for Our Lives, and this very rally mark the beginning of our fight to take control of our destinies and end gun violence in our schools,” Christina Gomez, 17, of Hunterdon said at the rally in Somerville. “We cannot stand idly by and watch people complain and argue about issues and not take any action themselves... the students of America are going to change our country because we have a voice and a purpose.”

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