Cheltenham HS stresses unity during gun protest walkout on Columbine anniversary

(From left) Arianna Wallace, Eve Glazier, and Eryn Banton, three of the students concerned about gun violence who organized a walkout for this Friday at Cheltenham High School.

It was hailed as the dawn of a new generation of student activism when tens of thousands of kids streamed out of their classrooms last month for a National School Walkout to protest mass shootings — but Cheltenham High School senior Eve Glazier and some of her friends thought something was still missing.

“A lot of people just feel excluded by the movement,” said Glazier, one of about 500 Cheltenham kids who’d walked out on March 14 in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 people dead. “It’s not the fault of the people leading it. … It’s just the way society is.”

When Glazier learned of a second National School Walkout – slated for this Friday, on the anniversary of the infamous 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School – she and two other student activists talked about Cheltenham taking part in a big way, but with some major differences.

“We’re saying our focus is on gun violence in general, …” said Glazier. “Every day gun violence is affecting people of color. For a lot of our students it’s hard for them to be concerned with big mass shootings when their everyday reality is urban gun violence….”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff
Arianna Wallace, left, Eve Glazier, center, and Eryn Banton, right, three of the students concerned about gun violence who organized a walkout this Friday, shown here in front of Cheltenham High School, Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

Friday’s next wave of protests – in which a patchwork network of hundreds of schools from coast-to-coast plan to participate – marks something of a crossroads for the anti-gun-violence movement that exploded under the leadership of students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and brought out hundreds of thousands for a March 24 March for Our Lives in D.C. and elsewhere.

The upcoming walkout seeks a broader focus on gun control, including gun violence in urban neighborhoods, and has drawn a mixed reaction from Cheltenham administrators who were more tolerant toward March’s first walkout, which at most schools had lasted just 17 minutes.

“I’m very proud of the kids for their civic mindedness and how they organized and their commitment to a social cause,” said Ray McFall, Cheltenham High School principal. “Yet we’re responsible for them during the course of the day. We have a legal obligation, a moral obligation. …”

Glazier and two other organizers — Eryn Banton and Arianna Wallace — worked ahead of Friday’s protest to forge an inclusive coalition with not only the Black Student Union and Black Scholars but also groups representing Asians, Muslims, LGBT students, and others. They planned a more ambitious event that would take protesters down to Philadelphia City Hall to rally with kids from other high schools. And they endorsed civil disobedience when Cheltenham school leaders said kids who leave school without parental notes will face punishment.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone in our community’s voices are equally heard in regards to gun violence,” said Banton. The daughter of a civil rights activist who fought for equal pay for black teachers in Florida, Banton said: “Some kids understand we might be subject to detention, and that’s OK.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.
Eryn Banton, a lead organize of students concerned about gun violence, shown here in front of Cheltenham High School, Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

The 19th anniversary of the Columbine shootings – the Littleton, Colo., rampage by two male students that killed 13 kids and first focused national attention on mass killings in schools – particularly resonates with students like 17-year-old Mikayla Joffe from Wissahickon High School, a leader of that school’s walkout.

“I think one of the reasons why this generation has become so vocal, … we haven’t lived a day where school shootings aren’t normal,” Joffe said. “We’ve grown up where this is a thing that has happened and it shouldn’t be. It should have stopped after Columbine.”

The protesters from her Montgomery County high school are planning to meet up with the kids from Cheltenham and several other schools such as Germantown Friends at the City Hall rally. Some 15 to 20 speakers there are planning to call for new gun laws such as stricter background checks for purchasers while also decrying the frequent but isolated violence that plagues kids in lower-income communities and fails to get as much attention as mass shootings.

Wissahickon school officials told organizers that students can’t leave their campus for the Philadelphia protest without a note from a parent or guardian, and Cheltenham leaders have taken a similar stance. They said permission is needed not because they differ with the goals of the protest but because they cannot guarantee the safety of students who leave school grounds.

In an email to Cheltenham stakeholders, Superintendent Wagner Marseille warned that “leaving school without parental permission will result in a violation of our student code of conduct which will lead to disciplinary actions.”

Glazier said the Cheltenham protest organizers are not planning to ask their parents for excuse notes “because we want it to be all or nothing.” She added that “it’s an act of civil disobedience and we acknowledge it and we’re proud to take it,” referring to any punishment.

Meanwhile, as the movement becomes more overtly political and confrontational, it is also gaining support in new places such as college campuses. At the University of Pennsylvania, students are planning a solidarity event for Friday morning in front of College Hall where there will be speeches, a moment of silence, and a voter-registration push.

“It’s a way for the movement to not lose momentum,” said Rachel Steinig, an 18-year-old freshman from Philadelphia who organized the Penn event. Like others planning to protest Friday, Steinig agrees there should be more focus on urban shootings, noting that “gun violence is an issue that affects a lot of different communities, that can be across the class divide, or racial divide.”

In Cheltenham, the calls to bridge racial gaps resonates with organizers like Glazier – who’s also been filming a documentary on race relations at the high school – and Wallace, who said “people didn’t feel emotionally attached” to the March walkout.” Then added, “We all have the same goal, which is gun control in all of our communities.”

But nationally, some schools that took part in the March rallies and memorials won’t be participating in Friday’s walkout. One, perhaps ironically, is Columbine High School, where officials said they do not want protests to interfere with a scheduled Day of Service the school annually holds in memorial to the 1999 victims.