Students from Millburn Public Schools participated in Wednesday’s National Student Walkout to protest gun violence and honor the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School shooting last month.
Millburn Middle School Principal John Connolly estimated that around three-quarters of the student body participated in the event. The students read the names of the 17 Parkland victims, spoke about policy changes they’d like to see enacted, and observed a moment of silence.
“It was entirely student planned and run,” said Connolly. “There wasn’t a bell to prompt them. At 10 a.m. these kids showed up outside and around 10:20 a.m. they made their way back into the building.”
Millburn High School officials estimate 1,200 students chose to participate in the walkout, which also included reading the names of the Parkland FL victims and prepared statements before heading back to class.
There was never a question in the district of banning the walkout. Nevertheless, the high school event was not without controversy, with both students and parents expressing frustration over the handling of events of the day.
“They decided this was a school-sanctioned event, and you had the option to go to the walkout or go to the auditorium,” said Millburn High School senior Kate Parker-Lentz. “It felt strange to have the school setting the agenda, considering it’s a student-led protest.”
Students were told to go back inside at 10:05 a.m., for a reverse evacuation drill, which, according to Safe Haven International, is intended to move students and staff rapidly inside “…. in the event of a tornado, armed aggressor, aggressive animal or hazardous materials.”
This led to confusion among some students who were upset they weren’t being allowed to walk out for the allotted 17 minutes, according to Lentz: “I don’t know who, I think it was a freshman, was so frustrated she shouted, ‘Why are we being forced to go inside after five minutes?'”
A statement issued by Millburn High School Principal Dr. William Miron explained, “Students actually arrived on the lawn as early as 9:50 and stayed until student leaders were done with their speeches. At that point, we conducted a reverse evacuation drill so to get our student masses back inside quickly. We had 50-100 students stay outside longer until 10:17 because they deemed it proper (and returned to class with no fanfare).”
Also concerning to Lentz were the fellow students she noticed talking during the moment of silence.
“I was embarrassed,” said Lentz. “Especially since it wasn’t mandatory, If you didn’t want to be there no one was forcing you. It was disrespectful. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to act like it.”
Principal Miron sent a letter to parents Tuesday night, stating the event would not be open to parents due to security concerns. He added that students “have been diligent in ‘sanitizing’ comments that they will share to avoid politicizing this event; so for example, no stance on the NRA is being made.”
Lentz saw the call for sanitizing comments as a way to ensure the event went smoothly.
“In our school, there is a large population who love to take a contrary side just to get a rise out of people,” she said, adding, “This wasn’t the space to argue for argument’s sake. I saw it as a time to show unity with Parkland and honor the anniversary.”
Nonetheless, the principal’s letter sparked backlash amongst parents, some of whom argued that the very nature of a walkout is political. Others bristled against ‘sanitizing’ speech saying it implied censorship.
“I was shocked to read speech would be sanitized, and there would be no talk about the NRA,” said Kevin Quinn, a Short Hills father and chair of the board of both the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence. “It was like if you went back 50 years and said the students are going to have a civil rights rally but don’t worry, we’re not going to let them talk about Jim Crow and the Klan. We absolutely have to be talking about these organizations. The NRA’s money and influence terrorize our politicians. And they’re beholden to it.”
Following the walkout Dr. Miron commended students for their conduct and diligence in organizing this event.
“I’m glad it went so smoothly,” he said.