L&G students to walk out in solidarity

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TOWNSHEND — Gabrel Vanni-Phillips, a senior at Leland & Gray Union High School, says his desire to speak out about gun control wasn't sudden. It came from a year of political and social frustration. Then he saw high school students on the news organizing CNN town halls and speaking out about the horrors they've experienced, and he knew he wanted to help.

Students at Leland & Gray High School are determined to put a stop to school shootings. On Wednesday, they'll be participating in a national walkout. The National School Walkout will start at 10 a.m. and will last 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine's Day.

The idea to participate originated from a Facebook post by Vanni-Phillips. From there Fairen Stark, a junior, saw the post and started organizing.

Stark said in an email to the Reformer that she would like, "to show solidarity with the national movement and demand better gun control."

"It's something every student and every teacher can be passionate about," Stark said. Though Stark has received a lot of support from school administration, students and teachers, the walkout is not a school-sanctioned event.

During February break, Stark reached out to Principal Bob Thibault about a possible walkout. He liked the idea of remembering the Parkland community. However, he also wanted there to be other activities going on during the event so that the school wasn't focusing solely on gun control, a topic that's known to be politically divisive. Student organizers did want to stay on the topic of gun control and, after meeting with Thibault, both parties decided that the walkout should be entirely student-run. Because the walkout will be happening during class time, Stark said students would be getting detentions for participating. She said it was something student leaders had agreed to when talking with Thibault. She also emphasized his personal support for "civil disobedience." Stark doesn't mind the detention and is thinking of it as a sort of after party. While she's seen a lot of support for the walkout, Stark said not all students agree with it. She's heard of people who think the idea is stupid or who've said,"walking out of school isn't going to stop gun violence."

"We don't want this to be an us versus them issue," Stark said. "I don't want this to be something that divides us." Stark said she and her peers aren't trying to do away with the second amendment. She just wants more background checks and less violence. "I think the only reason Vermont hasn't had any catastrophes is because of luck and our small population," she said.

Vanni-Phillips agreed. "All we want is stricter gun control," he said. "At the very least at the same level as purchasing a motor vehicle."

After the walkout Stark is spearheading a "next steps group" that would be student-run. She intends on using it to talk to students about how they can support gun control legislation. She also wants to use it to make Leland & Gray a safer place to be. Right now, Leland and Gray doesn't have an official emergency response to active shooters. Instead, it has classroom lockdown drills, which Stark said can be scary.

"We don't know whether it's a drill or not. It's scary sitting in the dark surrounded by friends," she said. Stark also wants to meet with the school board and superintendent to talk about how the school can prevent shootings.

Thibault has also discussed the possibility of a forum on gun control where both sides can be debated, Stark said.

Both Stark and Vanni-Phillips emphasized the importance of young people speaking up. Young people, after all, are the victims of school shootings. The sudden wave of young people standing up, both thought, might incite legislative change. Vanni-Phillips pointed out that historically young people have been leaders in social change, from feminism to the civil rights movement. He also thought his generation might be especially effective because of their ability to communicate and organize through the internet.

Still, pushing for gun control in the wake of a school shooting is nothing new. Perhaps one of the best examples is the 2012 massacre that happened in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were killed. Following that shooting, bipartisan gun control bills were introduced and each failed.

Vanni-Phillips said that this time, he believes gun regulations would be passed.

"There are no more meaner or stubborn people in the world than teenagers," he said.

Thibault told the Reformer that school staff will be outside to supervise and make sure students are safe. As a former history teacher, he said, he definitely wants to support students' First Amendment rights.

But Thibault is also looking at potential consequences for the act of civil disobedience.

"We're going to determine what that will look like," he said. "I think it will have an educational theme to it."

The school has not seen any protests in the two years Thibault has been its principal.

Stark understands that ramifications are necessary for walking out of classrooms. Otherwise, she said, students would just start leaving classes in the name of protesting.

There has been talk of writing letters to editors instead of detention. Students would weigh in on why they participated.

"In the end, we would have this enormous stack of student letters that would be very powerful," Stark said. "I think that's a really good idea."

She sees recent bills in the Vermont Legislature to limit gun sales to those older than 21 and give authority to law enforcement to seize firearms or explosives as a step in the right direction. She also finds hope in the student-led demonstrations for more gun control.

"I know there's been a lot of walkouts organized around the country," she said, noting that Brattleboro Union High School will also have one. "There's just been a lot of student activism. I just think it's so important that teenagers and students get involved. We're going to be voting soon. I think it's important we speak up about what's happening. Students are dying in classrooms. It's something that matters."

This week, students will be having dialogues on the issue at lunch. Next week, Stark hopes to host a formal debate.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.

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