Speaking out about school safety

Julia Scott, Editor-in-Training

Generation Z — the generation born from vaguely 1998 to now — have lived in the looming shadow of violence. We are the post-Columbine children and it is clear in our culture, interactions, and attitudes.

The invariable response to mass violence by parents, teachers, and administration is that they never had to worry about school shootings or live with the same kind of fear.

Yet, despite the rhetoric and the mourning, the annual renewal of the bloodshed, in the nearly 20 years since Columbine, little has changed.

On Thursday March 15, after a snow day and a two hour delay, 50 to 60 BFA students left class at 10:30 a.m. and gathered by the front steps of the school.

This walkout took place on the national scale just a day before, organized by Youth EMPOWER, a subsection of the Women’s March movement targeted toward student activism.

BFA students were unwilling to let the snow day end their protest, however, and on March 15, students stood in sub-freezing temperatures and a steady snowfall for 30 minutes.

Students stood in dead silence for 17 minutes while Alex Haag (’20) read the name of a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida at the top of each minute.

After honoring the victims, Haag spoke to the assembled students, along with Shannon MacDonald (’19) and Ben Stoll (’18).

“Part of our walkout is honoring [the Parkland Victims] but not everything we do is focused on the 17 victims… We’re focusing on the school safety aspect,” Committee Chair Dan Gregory (’18) said.

This walkout came less than a month after BFA experienced its own shooting threat on Feb. 24, an event the students speakers and organizer focused on in their preparation and presentation.

BFA students were dismissed early on Feb. 24, many stranded and confused, after BFA Principal Chris Mosca and St. Albans Police decided it was safest to remove students from the area.

Students were not informed what was going on during the 30 minute secure the school before the evacuation. Mosca tried to address these issue following the event in two class meetings.

Mosca also urged students to use the MRUSD app to look for updates in the future during emergency situations.

“What we are going to do is put information on [the MRUSD app] so that even if we can just put a ‘cryptic’ piece of information out from the school, we’ll have that as a way of trying to inform the public. Now, you don’t want to create more panic, but you want to inform. I think there’s a real balance there. I think if we have little predetermined statements that we can put out that might be helpful,” Mosca said.

Mosca expressed concerns that providing information too soon may lead to inaccurate facts getting out, like in the case of the misreported time in the police press release.

After the shooting threat, the St. Albans Police Department Facebook page reported that the threat was found at 11:30 a.m. This time was later contested and corrected to after noon.

“I am the school official. What I print I have to stand by or acknowledge that I was incorrect and I’d rather be certain that what I’m putting out is appropriate but in the midst of things, the goal too is to make sure that we’re moving kids away from the threat and addressing your safety and then we can debrief it later. But we are looking for ways to try to inform kids and teachers so that people have a better sense of what’s happening. Please know that these things are very fluid, things are happening quickly. Decisions have to be made. Hopefully, there’s a level of trust that when we say secure the school just stay put until we can get a handle on things,” Mosca said.

Along with the walkout, BFA students wrote letters expressing their fear and frustration to be distributed to administration and local officials.

“I can barely remember the first time I was evacuated from a school because of a threat, because it happened when I was so young, but I can remember plenty of occurrences since then. I am lucky that none of these threats were followed through with but the fact that these kind of violent acts occur often enough around the country that it is a legitimate concern terrifies me. I joined this rally because I shouldn’t have to feel that fear. I shouldn’t have to spend my nights asking myself who I would call if I think I’m going to die at school,” Stephanie Bidwell (’18) wrote.

The BFA walkout participants called for effective and immediate action to secure student safety in school. The Official BFA Walkout Committee “[aimed] to promote the safety of students and staff members from violence in schools by way of legislative change and school protocol improvements” according to its official mission statement, written by BFA Walkout Committee Secretary, Sophia Venturo (’18).

“There is no mention of gun control in this. I know that a few of us have been frustrated by the lack of specificity in that. I share that frustration, I wish that we could be more specific, but pragmatically, looking at the demographic of BFA, there’s a lot of people that are not in favor of gun control or kind of have a misunderstanding,” Venturo said.

Many steps, like the lack of gun related language, were put in place to protect BFA students involved both from potential threats of violence and from poor public perception.  

“We have to be very careful about the way we go about all of this. There’s the fact that we’re all kids and people are going to be looking at us as kids with everything we do. We are going to be scrutinized, so we need to be careful. Like with the social media accounts going out now, everything that gets posted on those accounts has to be checked with the committee and voted on before it gets out there just to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Gregory said.

The committee heads stressed the importance of appearing professional and organized to bolster credibility. Every move and statement was discussed and voted on, with subcommittees dealing with specifics like public relations or the treasury.

“We officially made the BFA Walkout Committee. That way it’s not just a group of kids trying to do something it’s an organized group and we have people we need to answer to to make sure things get done and get done in the right ways… We created subcommittees, almost like focus groups, for different tasks people need to work on so we can get this up and running,” Gregory said.

One of the steps the student leaders took was to ensure protesters would not face repercussions for the walkout. Sara Young, head of the Letter Committee spoke to Mosca after the first Walkout Committee meeting and received expressed permission to protest.

“We received guidance from the Vermont Principals Association and we discussed it at our school district principals meeting and essentially it would be allowed as long as it’s respectful as long as it’s student-led and as long as it is safe. I talked to some of the students who are involved and have been given those assurances,” Mosca said.

The BFA Walkout Committee is not backing down or ending its mission. BFA students will be going to Montpelier for the Walk For Our Lives march.

On Saturday, March 24 at 10 a.m., a bus will be bringing interested students from BFA to Montpelier to participate in the march on the state capital. Students who plan on going should contact Venturo to help the BFA Walkout Committee get an accurate headcount.