After hearing concerns that school rules could hinder efforts by students who want to walk out on Wednesday to honor Florida school shooting victims, Sacajawea Middle School Principal Jeremy Ochse decided to call for a mandatory assembly to ensure students could speak their minds.
The effort is not a move to blunt protest and silence teens, he said, but rather to give students a safe and sanctioned stage to share their thoughts instead of facing discipline for walking out of school next Wednesday for 17 minutes.
“We really wanted to have an opportunity to hear students’ voices,” Ochse said. “We are hoping to have 17 speakers so we can recognize those folks who lost loved ones.”
Working with students and staff, the plan came together for the 17-minute assembly. Teachers will hand out T-shirts highlighting 17 acts of kindness. That will be followed by 17 days of acts of kindness at the school, he said.
The assembly is being used to honor the student-led campaign by students in Florida who have lobbied elected leaders to push for anything that could help prevent the next school shooting in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Ochse also noted his school’s close proximity to Freeman High School, where Sam Strahan was shot to death and three girls were injured in a shooting in September. Suspected shooter Caleb Sharpe faces a charge of first-degree murder.
“We felt there is a lot of strength in students’ voices,” Ochse said. “It makes good sense for our school and our community, and it is something our stakeholders were asking for. It’s that whole idea of having recognition of those voices and do it in a way where we can come together.”
Spokane Public Schools spokesman Kevin Morrison said Sacajawea is the only school that, so far, has scheduled a mandatory event for 10 a.m. Wednesday.
The district’s decision last week to require students to get parental approval to take part in walkouts sparked controversy among some parents.
At the Spokane School Board meeting last week, Amanda Braley, who has a daughter at Lewis and Clark High School, criticized school officials for missing a learning opportunity.
“Tell them that you are proud of them for wanting to do something to stop gun violence,” Braley told the board. “Tell them that taking a stand and speaking up when you see injustice is important. Don’t treat this like any other absence. Listen to your student activists on this issue and help them put an end to gun violence.”
One of those upset parents was Megan Riggs, whose 13-year-old daughter, Abby, attends Sacajawea.
Abby and her friends, Tula Webber and Clara DePaolo, passed out hundreds of permission slips before the district rule came down requiring parents to attend any walkouts or speeches for middle school-age students and younger.
Riggs questioned why she had to learn about the Sacajawea assembly from a reporter.
The event “sounds like a good idea,” Riggs said. “But I don’t know why it needs to be exactly the same time as the walkout. I don’t know why we can’t do both.”
Abby, the eighth-grader, said it didn’t take long for her to write her speech, which she expects will take two or three minutes to recite.
“The point of the walkout is to get students involved so that they can take a stand,” Abby said. “We are the ones being primarily affected, along with teachers and staff.”
Abby said she wants to support the idea of the assembly. “But I also know they must pre-approve everything that is said in the assembly. So I would think they would censor us to make sure there is nothing political or emotional. I would not be OK with that.”
Ochse said the plan is to give 17 speakers a minute each; he does not intend to limit any speakers who take longer. And he added that any parent who wants to attend is welcome.
“It’s just a unifying event about having a safe school, to love on one another and be kind to one another,” he said.
Abby said every time she walks past a security guard, she is reminded of the horrors that continue to befall schools around Spokane and elsewhere in the country.
“The message I’m trying to send is that it is our generation that is the one that will change the way we think about these things,” she said, “and change the world.”