Students Join National School Walkout, Debate Gun Reform


Esme Graham

Junior Talisha Ward spoke during the community forum on Wednesday, March 14. The Poly community gathered in the Student Center to debate next steps.

The Wednesday, March 14, community forum, which directly followed the all-school walkout against gun violence, began with a set of familiar ground rules and nervous chatter. Many students, feeling hopeless in the face of gun violence, came to the discussion to debate possible solutions to the nationwide epidemic.  

But after 17 lives were taken in what the Gun Violence Archive called the 30th mass shooting of 2018, a unique sense of anger hung in the air. With this desperation came the drive to call “BS” on what students perceived to be senseless gun laws. Across the nation, students walked out of class at 10 a.m. into the crisp March air, chanting “enough is enough” and vowing “never again.”

“How do the roots of gun control and the history of the 2nd Amendment inform the way we combat our modern-day problems?” asked Student Body President Shakaa Chaiban at the beginning of the forum. Reading from a folded piece of paper, he asked questions to a room of students eager and impatient to debate with one another. “If we do not trust our elected officials to handle these problems, who do we go to?”

The walkout and accompanying community forum were planned by Chaiban and Vice President Ellen Gaffney, along with a small group of students who volunteered to participate. Chaiban and Gaffney decided to center the forum around three excerpts that offered facts about gun violence in the United States. To begin, Chaiban told students that in the United States, there are 88.8 guns per 100 people, according to the National Rifle Association.

“When it came to gun control, we didn’t want people to feel targeted for their views,” Gaffney said. “The walkout is too sensitive a topic to have people be ‘pro-gun’ and for others to respond ‘but kids died.’ Historical, evidence-based facts would be less disputed.”

At Poly, community forums usually serve to highlight students’ diversity of opinion. But the discussion following the walkout, marked by silent pauses and desperate pleas for change, featured little heated debate. Instead, Gaffney passed around voter registration cards and students from the Middle and Upper School shared their frustration with the slow-moving campaign toward gun reform.

Surrounded by posters listing the names of those killed in Parkland, FL hung by seniors Storm Bria-Bookhard, Violet McCabe and Jules Gabellini, students also voiced their anger toward the seemingly endless string of mass shootings. Some students, like senior Julian Demann, talked about how gun culture in the United States has become an increasingly powerful and dangerous force.

“We’re growing up in a society where one of the highest selling video games is Call of Duty: Black Ops,” Demann said. “As a kid, I would run around shooting people with my Nerf gun. At that point, what lessons are you teaching your kids? You’re perpetuating gun culture.”

Before the forum, Gaffney approached Dean of Students Harold Bernieri and Head of School Audrius Barzdukas to gain approval for the walkout. Gaffney and Chaiban wanted to make sure that students would not face disciplinary action for missing class.  

In November 2016, a group of Poly students joined other New York City activists in protest against President Trump’s recent election, knowing they would have to serve a detention for leaving school. For the March 2018 walkout, however, many students, teachers and administrators gathered in the oval for 17 minutes of speeches and silent reflection. Barzdukas, who said that letting students participate in the walkout was a “no-brainer,” immediately agreed to let Student Government and other interested students plan the event.

“Those 17 minutes spent honoring the lives of our fellow school community members in Florida was a matter of importance for our entire Poly community,” Barzdukas said. “There’s nothing more sacred than a place of learning.”