The call went out just before 10 a.m. on Wednesday at the Statesboro STEAM College, Careers, Arts & Technology Academy: “Everyone grab your coats!”
Students and faculty at the charter school filed out of the building and congregated in a sunny spot in the parking lot. Not for recess. Not for a fire drill. Rather, to join schools all over the country and observe the National School Walkout.
The national demonstration, originated by EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women's March, was conceived to honor the 17 people who died in the shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and to voice their support for stricter gun control legislation.
According to Associated Press reports, some school districts took a hard line, promising to suspend students who walked out, while others worked with students to set up places on campus where they could remember the victims and express their views.
Bulloch County Schools took the latter approach in the interest of security, according to Superintendent Charles Wilson, making accommodations behind the locked doors of their facilities for students wishing to participate — without school endorsement.
“Each of our 15 schools observed a moment of silence this morning to remember lives lost due to school violence,” Hayley Greene, public relations and market specialist for Bulloch County Schools, said in a statement.
“Statesboro High, Portal Middle High, Southeast Bulloch High and Southeast Bulloch Middle each reported that they had groups of students who chose to either gather and voice their concerns, spend time in student prayer, or talk about ways to perform acts of kindness in their schools. School principals reported that it was a peaceful time of student expression without incident,” she said.
Statesboro STEAM Director Corliss Reese decided to bring students into the national conversation with the support of faculty and staff.
The faculty didn’t take much convincing.
“It’s the nature of our school,” Reese said. “Our teachers are in tune with our students,” suggesting that they expected a desire by most students to participate.
Nearly all of the 168 students did participate. There were no chants, protest signs or marches, as were seen on news broadcasts at other locations around the country. A moment of silence for the victims and a question-and-answer session were the main features.
Reese began by speaking into a microphone through a small PA system, establishing the purpose of the assembly.
“First, we are calling for an end to school violence. This is not just about guns. Or weapons. Or fighting. It’s about how we treat each other,” he said.
He called for vigilance, preparedness, dialogue and remembrance.
Students were fully aware of why they were there.
“We’re letting the families (of the shooting victims) know they aren’t alone,” said junior Jaycee Morgan, 17.
After a moment of silence, the mic was opened to student questions.
Most centered on an active shooting scenario. Reese said to expect more drills. Teachers have been training during work sessions, and students have been brought into the planning process through conversation.
One student wondered how Statesboro STEAM should contend with their open, non-traditional classroom spaces, in which there are few places to hide. Reese said that they have to be proactive and creative, just like the school itself. He later confirmed that a plan is already in place.
Another student asked one of the most obvious and chilling questions: “What if it’s one of us?”
Again, Reese urged vigilance: Pay attention and report anything that doesn’t seem right, or report a sighting of any type of weapon, even if it’s a toy. Also, they should report if a fellow student appears to need some help.
Morgan and fellow juniors Faith Torrence, Shannon Moore and Meagan Mallard huddled together in a blanket as chilly breezes punctuated the event. All four students said they were scared when they first heard about the shooting in Florida. They are old enough to remember other school shootings. What was different about this one?
“We’re all realizing this is a real threat we need to fix,” Morgan said.
Reese admits that this is a process, but the walkout provided an opportunity for the students to participate and even lead in the necessary dialogue.
“They are the ones affected by this,” he said.