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Sunday, December 16 News

Fairfield County students heed call for nationwide March 14 walkout

Molly Baker’s voice was soft as she addressed a crowded room in Greenwich Town Hall last Friday. But seated next to Connecticut’s senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, her words carried weight.

“I’ve been involved in local politics for almost four years now, and I’d like to think I’ve kept up pretty well with news and current events. But this time it’s so much different because all of my peers have kept up,” the 18-year-old said. “All of my peers are coming up to me and asking me what I think about gun control… They really, really want to form their own opinion.”

Baker, with Nick Fech, was one of two Fairfield Ludlowe High School students invited to participate in a roundtable on gun violence hosted by Murphy. But they are part of a much larger group of young activists nationally — and locally — seizing on a moment in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting to mobilize young people and affect real change for school safety.

Some students, like Baker and Fech, have begun dialogue with lawmakers. Many other Fairfield County students plan to take part on a more grassroots level, joining the nationwide call for school walkouts on March 14, among other upcoming protests.

“After Parkland, I was at the dinner table at my mother’s house and we were all talking about it, and I was just so inspired by these student activists (in Parkland),” said Katherine Lester, a Darien High School junior who is working with a group of students in her own town and in others, including Stamford and Greenwich, to plan a local walkout.

“I thought, we don’t really seem to be doing much in this town. So we should definitely contribute to show our solidarity and show our congressman and our senators that this isn’t OK,” the 16-year-old continued.

Even before Parkland, Lester was passionate about gun violence. Her grandfather, a police officer, was shot in the line of duty and developed leukemia as a result of complications. Others, like Kate and Meaghan Dempsey, both 17-year-old Darien juniors who are working with Lester to organize school protests, are alarmed at the way they and their peers have become desensitized to mass shootings.

“This isn’t something anyone should have to go through,” Kate Dempsey said. “We’re tired of being called the ‘mass shooting generation.’ We’re tired of mass shootings just being notifications on our phones.”

Baker, the Fairfield Ludlowe senior, still remembers her bus stopping on the way home from school one December day when she was in seventh grade. She heard through the fearful murmurs of her friends in nearby seats what had happened that day in Newtown, and has watched passion around the issue of school safety and gun control ebb and flow as subsequent mass shootings have occurred.

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“Things happen and then fizzle out. This time is different because everyone wants to be part of the change,” explained Baker, who said more than 350 Ludlowe students have signed up to participate in the March 14 walkout. A busload of Advanced Placement U.S. Government students, Baker included, and a second with Advanced Placement Comparative Government students, will also take a day trip to Washington, D.C., for another protest, the March For Our Lives rally on March 24.

“It’s not partisan, it’s about kids feeling safe,” the Fairfield teenager added.

The protests are not confined to Fairfield and Darien.

As of Wednesday, 166 New Canaan students responded that they intended to participate in the March 14 walkout on a public Facebook group hosted by New Canaan High School students Emily Dowdle and Emily Shizari.

“The students indicated their main themes were based on school safety and solidarity,” said New Canaan High School Principal William Egan. “We asked students to have family discussions and make personal decisions on the choice to walk out of school.”

Private schools, too, like Notre Dame Catholic High School in Fairfield, are planning an observance. St. Luke’s head of school — in New Canaan — said the private school is closed for break March 14, but that protests at a later date are possible.

In a Tuesday email sent to Westport parents, Staples High School Principal James D’Amico said, “While our school does not condone student walkouts due to the disruption to the educational process, we recognize our students’ desire to stand in solidarity with their counterparts at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month after the horrific events at that school, and promote active citizenship among our student population.”

D’Amico said the administration has worked with many students who intend to participate in the walkout.

Darien, Fairfield and New Canaan administrators also said they have worked with students and law enforcement to ensure the safety of all students and faculty during the 17-minute planned walkout — one minute for each person killed Feb. 14. Students will not be punished for participating and many universities, including Sacred Heart University, have issued statements that prospective students disciplined for participating in peaceful protests would not by affected negatively during the admissions process.

Fairfield Warde Headmaster David Ebling said he and administrators have worked with groups of students interested in participating. Following the walkout, a school-wide remembrance of the Parkland victims will be held for those who, for whatever reason, decide to stay indoors.

“We have some students that really want to participate. We have other students that are not comfortable doing that for a variety of reasons, so we also wanted to do something as a school,” Ebling said. “It’s been amazing how articulate they are and how passionate they are about the cause. I think they’ll impress us all.”

Fairfield Ludlowe Headmaster Greg Hatzis said in his career he’s never seen students engage to this degree.

“I’ve never seen anything on this scale in terms of it being connected to a national movement,” Hatzis said, adding that students have been “incredibly respectful.”

“This issue has incredible staying power and you just feel that there’s a connection among the students of all the same age across a large part of the country,” the headmaster said.

That connection among young people is also apparently being forged despite differences in political affiliation.

Ludlowe senior Christina Converitto, 17, and juniors Bella Phillips, 16, and Hadley Day, 16, said they’ve seen a response from peers with political views different from their own.

“Living in Fairfield, you kind of live in a liberal bubble, where everyone kind of has Democratic views. But even the people in our government class who are kind of lone conservatives are coming together on this. They’ve come to the meetings and are part of the Facebook groups,” Convertito said.

In Darien, too, Lester and the Dempsey sisters are focused on taking a nonpartisan approach to the walkout, which they anticipate could involve 500 students.

“The reason we wanted to be apolitical for this specific walkout is it’s supposed to honor the victims and bring attention to school safety,” Lester said. “We’re not going after administration, we’re not going after the faculty. We’re trying to make our community more inclusive and more together.”

That preference toward inclusivity, students believe, will strengthen the push for safer schools and for less gun violence. The lives lost at Parkland, they hope, will not have been in vain.

“We want to make it clear that after the March 14 walkout, we’re not done,” Meaghan Dempsey said. “This is not the end.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1

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