Rural Mass. School Walkout Treads Fine Line On Gun Control Advocacy

Mar 15, 2018

On the dot of 10 a.m., even as walkways were still being treated for ice the morning after a nor'easter, students from the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange, Massachusetts, and many teachers, took part in Wednesday's national school walkout.

About 100 of Mahar's 640 students, grades 7 through 12, chose to stay in the library with a teacher, while the others exited the building and began a 17-minute vigil, one minute for each victim in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting on February 14.

History teacher Robin Allain-Moody asked everyone to be patient.

“We're just waiting for everyone to come out here and then the student organizers will say a few words,” she said through a megaphone.

Soon, standing in the cold without a coat, student Cole Emery began to speak. Emery is a senior and on the student council. He was among those who helped organize the walkout.

Emery was surprised, he told the crowd, that after the Parkland shooting he barely heard anyone at school talk about it.

“If you do not want gun violence tragedies to be your status quo, then don't let them be,” Emery said.

A school shooting is not a liberal or conservative issue, Emery said, it’s a human issue. He urged them to think larger.

"Imagine a country in which our younger brothers and sisters will never have to be afraid of going to school, a country in which our politicians admit that we have a public health crisis, and act with integrity to fix it," he said. 

In the planning of this event, Mahar Regional school administrators said they were careful not to politicize the walkout. For security reasons, it wasn’t even listed among the hundreds posted to the national walkout website. Superintendent Tari Nugent Thomas said students could have been "sitting ducks.”

“I didn't want to put on a national map that my students would be spilling out at 10 a.m., and assembling publicly,” she said.

Thomas was cautious for another reason. This rural community has a wide range of opinions on gun control. She mentioned the school’s active fish and game club.

“So, there's a large here population that is very supportive of gun rights, " Thomas said.

When students let her know they wanted to take part in the national walkout, she said it was a tricky balancing act for the school. Some parents complained, she said. Thomas said she explained to them that this was an opportunity for students to honor those who died in Florida.

And for those who wanted to, they could "urge lawmakers to look at gun control," Thomas said.

That’s just what student speaker Cole Emery did.

"If you don't like organizations that profitize weapons and commodify human lives, then get up and vote for someone who represents your values,” Emery said.

Mahar senior Cole Emery urges his fellow students to talk about gun violence, and do something about it.
Credit Jill Kaufman / New England Public Radio

Within a few minutes, another student took the megaphone and began to read the names of the 17 shooting victims. A teacher stood at her side with a large chime, struck after each name.

At 10:17 a.m., the walkout was over. Students and staff shuffled back into the warm building and classes resumed.

Emery said he hopes Mahar students, after this, become more politically active, whatever side they're on.  At lunch time, those who were of age were invited to register to vote.