By Jonny Davis and Solomon Fox
On Wednesday, March 14, 2018, Schechter Westchester students participated in an optional school walkout along with students from thousands of schools across the country commemorating the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. Middle and high school students were given the option to walk out of class for 17 minutes, one minute in honor of each life lost in the shooting.
The program took place outside of the front doors of the school and began with opening remarks from students, focused on memorializing the victims of the Parkland Shooting. Some students recited the names of the 17 victims, while other students, members of the Camp Starlight community, spoke about their personal relationship with one of the victims, Scott Beigel.
“Sandy Hook, the nightclub shooting, the Vegas shooting – these were all tragedies but luckily I have never been in a situation where I knew someone who was killed. This all changed after the Douglas shooting. Scott Biegel was a heroic teacher who got shot saving his students. Scott was a hero long before this, and he will continue to be known as a hero forever,” said sophomore Reese Cohen.
The memorial portion of the walkout also included the singing of El Maleh Rachamim, the traditional song for times of mourning and tragedy, and the reciting of a symbolic poem written by a victim only days before he was killed.
After commemorating the victims’ lives through various tributes, the conversation changed gears, and focused on motivating and educating students on how to take action.
“Our focus in this program is shifting to how we can honor the memories of these victims through action, action that they can no longer take,” junior Sophia Wolk said from the podium. “Some problems feel important yet far away, but this issue of gun violence is not just some problem, it is our problem. This is personal. We are high schoolers and middle schoolers. We are human beings. We have stories just like all of the victims whose stories were tragically cut short,” Wolk said.
The school administration had stated that it was not involved in planning or organizing the event, but rather encouraged students to act in whatever way they see fit.
“While we as school leadership are not the ones planning the walkout, we are proud of our students for using their voices and their feet to advocate for their beliefs, consistent with our core value of gemilut chasadim/social action,” High School Principal Eric Bassin and Middle School Principal Amy Holtzer wrote in an email sent to the upper school community the day before the walkout.
Due to the fact that majority of the student body participated in the walkout, including several teachers, many classes were not in session during the 17 to 20 minute time period of the walkout. As a result, some questioned whether or not this break from class-time was a signal of the school taking a stance on the issue at hand.
When asked about this concern, Head of School Dr. Michael Kay said, “We were intending to take a neutral pragmatic stance. [Anytime] many students [are] out of class for any reason teachers would be likely to pause in their teaching. It was our intention to be supportive of student voice… the concept of students demonstrating their passion was something that we do feel strongly about… But, it was not our intention either to endorse or to penalize students who participated.”
Many students opted not to participate in the walkout because of personal political beliefs or the organizers’ decision to address gun control.
“I didn’t participate in the walkout because I felt that my political views weren’t represented and overall, I think that it shouldn’t have been a political activity,” freshman Lily Zuckerman said.
Additionally, students and faculty who walked out came under fire by other students, including the leaders of the Schechter Political Science Club, formerly known as the Young Conservatives Club. The leaders, who wished for their names not to be stated, issued a statement on the Schechter Westchester High School Student Facebook page speaking out against the walkout: “The Schechter Political Science Club believes it is wrong and unethical to politicize tragedies. We condemn the immoral actions of the students and faculty using the recent tragedy as a vehicle to promote gun control, including many of those propagating the March for Our Lives Movement within the school. As such, we strongly encourage our peers not to take part in this event due to the reprehensible actions of its leaders.”
However, some students who took part in the walkout were critical of those who chose to remain inside as some students who participated did not see the walkout as an entirely political ceremony.
“Some of the statements could have been seen as political but no one was pushing any specific agenda and no one was making any claims regarding specific policies,” junior Galia Wechsler said. “Therefore, the students who boycotted the walkout because of their concern for it being overly political, missed an opportunity to memorialize the victims of the shooting and to stand up for change.”
Some felt that the walkout had sparked a contentious political disagreement, splitting the student body into opposing groups: those who participated in the walkout and those who did not. In response, Junior Galia Wechsler and Freshman Lily Zuckerman, under the advisement of the 10th Grade Dean Alyssa Zelicof, worked to create an opportunity to discuss these opinions.
On Friday, March 16, 2018, high school students participated in a special program titled “Responding to Parkland: SW Student Voices.” During this program, freshmen Zach Galsky and Lily Zuckerman, sophomores Rachel Amar and Adam Shinder, and juniors Chloe Bender, Daniel Goldberg, Galia Weschler, and Jack Weissman, served as panelists in a discussion moderated by Kay.
The students represented a number of perspectives, explaining their views on the issues through statistics, emotional connections, and personal experiences.
The goal of the program was to allow students to “process these events [such as the walkout] and share their personal perspectives and viewpoints” according to High School Principal Eric Bassin and Middle School Principal Amy Holtzer.
Furthermore, the administration communicated that the intention of the program was not to “stage a debate or seek to change minds on these important subjects, but rather to demonstrate that a person’s own viewpoints can be enriched through active engagement with people whose perspectives differ from her/his own,” as Kay stated in an email addressed to the high school.
Some panelists commented on the success of their peers in achieving as Kay put it “civil discourse” on the issue of the walkout.
“I think it was a very great discussion, and I think people presented their opinions very respectfully,” junior and panelist Daniel Goldberg said. “[The Special Program] effectively provided the opportunity for some students to better understand other views in a respectful setting.”
“As a school, we want to model how to actively listen, whether it be about a topic related to gun control or anything else, for that matter. My hope is students will take what they saw [during this program] and apply it to different conversations moving forward,” Zelicof said.