Remembering Parkland: At some schools, student walkouts become a learning tool

Published March 9 2018
Updated March 9 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — Gulf High School senior Areti Papanikas grabbed her iPhone to snap a shot of sophomores Caitlin Corlett, Kaitlynn Zajecka and Alex Williams sharing their message.

"Compliment 17 people," it said.

She wanted to capture the moment for the school’s social media sites as part of a weeklong initiative, #OurGHS17, commemorating the 17 lives lost Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

"With everything that has been happening in our society," Papanikas said, "there obviously needs to be change."

The students’ newfound sense of activism has a strong supporter in principal Kim Davis, to the point that she stood ready to help them plan a walkout if that’s what they wanted to do.

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That approach is part of a district-wide strategy that stands in contrast to how some school systems are reacting to a student movement that on Wednesday will unite around a national school walkout.

In other locales, school leaders have threatened to discipline or put strict limits on teens who leave class in a show of solidarity with their Parkland peers.

In Pasco, though, educators view the event as an opportunity for learning that matters to students. District leaders pulled out the state standards on civic participation and told teachers to incorporate them into student-led efforts to get involved, even if it included a brief walkout.

Several Pasco schools plan walkouts on Wednesday. And many schools, including some in other area districts, plan more elaborate affairs allowing students to talk at length about their issues in a more organized way.

At St. Petersburg’s Gibbs High, for instance, students plan to give speeches on gun violence leading up to a lunchtime walkout. Across the rest of Pinellas County, "district leaders have encouraged schools and teachers to make student activism an authentic learning opportunity," district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said. "This could include a classroom lesson or activity."

Students in Hillsborough County, the area’s largest district, will be on spring break Wednesday. But a group from Tampa’s Blake High is planning to join the walkout in spirit with a gathering in Ybor City.

In the days after the Parkland shooting, with the tragedy still fresh, Gulf High students started off thinking about weekly walkouts. But they quickly determined that something more meaningful had to be done.

They began working with Davis and others to devise an approach to bring students together, improve Gulf’s culture and show support for the growing teen movement for improved school safety and gun control. It included daily moments of silence in recognition of school violence victims dating back to Columbine, public service announcements encouraging students to speak out and come together, and the wearing of specific colors as acts of solidarity.

At the same time, other Pasco leaders were discussing ways to capture students’ drive rather than snuff it out. Principals met to brainstorm on how to work closely with their students, to help them create meaningful initiatives that give them voice while not taking away from their classes.

And in high schools around the county, including Fivay, Sunlake and Cypress Creek, students devised programs to raise awareness and interest among their peers.

"It’s honestly been amazing how the teachers and administration have been so supportive," said Gulf High senior Brianna Riddle, a co-organizer of the school’s Together We Stand committee with Papanikas and others.

Davis said she never considered turning down the students’ ideas. "When it’s kid-driven and it’s positive like this, they can do it all the time," the principal said.

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One of Gulf’s more popular activities became the pledge to do 17 positive things, which students announce during lunch time. Kids, teachers and even school visitors participate, offering promises to meet 17 new friends, make 17 people laugh, give 17 people a high-five.

"I think it’s really empowering to show the positivity they’re trying to show," said Kaitlin Zajecka, a sophomore who participated with friends on Wednesday morning. "It’s really helping us in a time of need."

After the Parkland shooting, she said, many Gulf students were afraid to walk the halls alone.

"This is a good starting point, to show we’re not alone," Zajecka said.

"It’s really effective," added junior Morgan Jehlen. "I think it can spread positivity."

The senior organizers said they hoped the effort won’t stop when classes end. Gulf High, and the larger community, need to keep the engagement going, said senior Cheyenne Dodd.

Sophomore Antonio Papanikas said he already was recruiting help continue the progress made by his sister, Areti, and others.

"The biggest thing we’re trying to get out of this is the awareness and the remembrance," he said. "The families that this happened to won’t forget this. Why should we?"

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.