What Surprised Me About the #NationalWalkoutDay at My Daughter’s School.
27 degrees Fahrenheit.
Over 1000 students.
5 inspiring student speeches.
17 minutes of energizing student activism.
1 minute of silence.
1 loud “F*ck you!”
This last is what surprised me about the #NationalWalkoutDay at my daughter’s high school in Lexington, Kentucky.
My husband and I were among a handful of parents who watched our children stream out of Lafayette High School into the parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14. It was the 1-month anniversary of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and teachers were murdered by evil with guns. Today, the students poured out of the doors and into that frigid March morning to protest gun violence in schools.
We stood there in the shivering cold to support the students who had organized the event.
We came because we are concerned about the safety of our children, their peers, their teachers, and administrators. Because we wanted to be in solidarity with all families who have lost their children and loved ones to gun violence.
I came wearing my clerical collar because I believe it is important for clergy to visibly participate in the public square on these issues of safety and justice. I made my sign to exercise my First Amendment right of free speech as my daughter and her friends exercised their right to peaceful assembly.
The principal approached us just before the 10:00 hour to thank us for coming out in support of the students.
I thanked him for allowing the students to organize this event. He didn’t try to squelch their voices, or penalize them for walking out of school, or downplay their concerns. He fully supported and encouraged them, and I told him this meant a great deal to me as a parent.
“This is the generation who has grown up with this kind of gun violence,” Principal Jacobs said to us. “From the time they were in Kindergarten, they were having lock-down drills. They’ve had enough. I really believe they are going to change things.”
As we watched the students gather around the platform, we listened to the moving, powerful speeches of the student leaders.
The student body president gave a brief speech establishing the importance of the event and its purpose at the school. Another student read a poem about the demand for school safety. This was followed by an impassioned speech by a young woman about civic engagement and youth empowerment. She insisted, “Our lives matter!” and the crowd roared.
A young man then announced the voter registration drive for students who are 18 or will turn 18 by the next election. In the final speech affirming the value of student lives, diversity, and safety, the young woman commenced a moment of silence.
For one minute, the crowd hushed.
She broke the silence by thanking everyone for coming and saying some final remarks.
At the end of her speech, one male student from the back of the crowd yelled in response: “F*ck you!”
I didn’t see who said it, but I heard it come from the group of about 10-20 young white males who had grouped together during the event around a sign reading “Guns are not the issue.”
To be clear, not all the male students in this group were disruptive. But throughout the entire gathering, many of them yelled obscenities, mocked the speakers, disrespected their peers with loud talking, and called out pro-gun slogans. Several of them yelled at me, “My guns DO matter!” and hurled loud expletives. A few of them walked past me to give me the middle finger.
I guess I should not be surprised.
I’m not naïve enough to think there is unity among the student body on the issue of guns and gun violence. But I was shocked at the blatant disrespect shown to their fellow students and members of the community who had gathered. This is supposed to be a “good school.” And, indeed, it is one of the top high schools in the state of Kentucky. I am so proud of what my daughter and her peers have accomplished in the music program, in their academics, and in their activism.
But the behavior of these young men reminds me of one of Shakespeare’s famous sonnets (#35):
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
The canker of young male rage exists in my daughter’s school.
I saw it with my own eyes, and it greatly concerns me. Given the fact that the majority of mass shooters are males who display warning signs ahead of time, when we see students engaging in this kind of hostile behavior, red flags should be going up. And steps should be taken to engage them.
My hope is that there are enough “white cells” in the student body and among the faculty to neutralize such toxic hatred. I know that at least one teacher was monitoring their behavior. Likely, she allowed them to go unchallenged because they, too, have a right to free speech and assembly, and they were not yet violent. But they were hostile, and their intimidation tactics felt threatening to me.
Fortunately, they were not the majority.
The rest of the students were cheering loudly for their peers who spoke so eloquently and displayed admirable leadership skills. But these hostile male students remind me that my daughter’s school is not safe. And there is still much work to be done.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).