School Shooting Is It Different

Students chanting protest slogans outside the Florida House chamber on Feb. 21.

Colonial Forge High School senior Katie Loose noticed a disturbing trend after school shootings.

People would send their thoughts and prayers on social media. Then, after a couple weeks, their attention would turn to something else.

“It’s like it never happened,” Loose, 17, said of previous school shootings. “There’s sort of an apathy that I sense.”

But the outrage over the mass shooting on Feb. 14 at a south Florida high school appears to have more staying power, with thousands of students planning to participate in a National School Walkout on Wednesday.

Loose has organized what she described as a “rally for change,” which will take place at an outdoor courtyard at the Stafford County school early that morning. Colonial Forge appears to be an outlier in the Fredericksburg region, where most schools have instructed students to hold walkout-related activities indoors because of safety concerns.

Students apparently will not be penalized for taking part in activities within their schools, though they could receive unexcused absences if they venture outside. The Stafford Public Schools system sent a letter to parents saying it would not “condone students exiting” the buildings, though Loose said Colonial Forge administrators had approved her outdoor event behind the school.

A website for the National School Walkout encourages students, teachers and others to leave their schools from 10 a.m. until 10:17 a.m. to “protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.” The event comes exactly a month after a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 students and adults.

Loose said she scheduled her event earlier so it does not interfere with a “Right to Write” activity at 10 a.m. in which students can write letters to lawmakers.

The region’s school systems have tread carefully when addressing the politically charged issue, with some emphasizing that students, not teachers, will initiate any activities. Superintendents in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, King George and Caroline counties all avoided the phrase “gun violence” in letters to parents about the walkout.

A letter to Spotsylvania parents noted that the school system does not “endorse or support any political viewpoints pertaining to the event,” but would let students leave their classrooms at 10 a.m.—so long as they remain quiet and stay inside.

Fredericksburg Superintendent David Melton offered a similar apolitical message, writing that “we are obligated to manage the event” because it had been widely promoted on social media. City schools will designate locations “on site at each building” for the walkout, he wrote.

Stafford officials said each school would establish a “safe place” indoors for students to discuss gun violence. “I think that it would be a dangerous situation for us to potentially have a mass exodus of students at an identified date” and time, Superintendent Bruce Benson said at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting.

Caroline Superintendent George Parker wrote in a letter that schools had identified indoor locations for student-run activities that could include writing lawmakers or reading the names of the Parkland victims. Participants will be reminded at 10:17 a.m. to “immediately return” to their classes, he wrote.

“While Caroline County Public Schools supports students’ right to freedom of expression, we remain responsible for providing a safe educational environment,” Parker wrote. Caroline students who leave their schools will get an unexcused absence.

King George County Superintendent Robert Benson wrote in his letter that “there is no expectation” students there will participate in the Wednesday walkout. Some high-schoolers will voluntarily take part in a student-led assembly April 20 in recognition of the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, he wrote.

The agenda includes a moment of silence for “victims of school violence,” a rendition of “God Bless America” and a reading of winning student essays about freedom of expression. That event will take place at the football stadium and “will not involve parents, community members or … the media,” Benson wrote.

“We believe that this voluntary assembly will provide students a safe learning opportunity about responsible citizenship and freedom of expression,” he stated.

The ACLU of Virginia advised superintendents that schools “cannot punish students who walk out … as a form of protest more harshly than if they are absent from class for any other reason.”

“From the ACLU of Virginia’s perspective, a public school should always seek to impose the fewest and narrowest restrictions on student expression possible given the special circumstances of the school environment,” wrote Virginia ACLU Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

Saundra Michel, whose son attends Stafford’s Brooke Point High School, called the school system’s decision to allow only indoor activities a reasonable compromise. Still, she said she would support her son if he participated in an actual walkout.

“The school has a responsibility to consider risk,” she said in a Facebook message to the newspaper. “I feel they found a way to balance that responsibility while respecting the students’ need to feel heard.”

Loose, the student organizing a walkout at Colonial Forge, politely declined to state her opinion on proposed gun control measures that include banning assault weapons and raising the age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21. “We’re trying to keep this event as politically neutral as we can,” she said.

But she said the event will advocate change because the status quo clearly isn’t working. The Parkland shooting shocked and saddened her, she said, but she’s encouraged that a student-led movement is pushing for change.

She feels empowered.

“I knew something had to be done,” Loose said. “This is a perfect chance because it’s such a big movement, and it’s being led by people my age.”

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402 jbranscome@freelancestar.co

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