Seventeen minutes for 17 victims.
That was the focus of a walkout demonstration at many high schools in Chester County Wednesday in a unified protest against gun violence.
As Downingtown West High School and Downingtown STEM Academy students gathered Wednesday at the athletic playing fields near both campuses during the National School Walkout, Carmen Campbell prayed for them.
Campbell, a Coatesville resident who has a relative attending Downingtown West, held signs to encourage prayer and school safety during the national 17-minute walkout in response to the school shooting last month in Parkland, Florida that claimed 17 lives and injured 15 others.
“It’s just me and the Lord,” Campbell said as she held signs on Manor Avenue outside the entrance to Downingtown West. “Some people don’t understand the power in prayer. It works.”
She watched as a large group of students walked out and gathered to share their thoughts about gun violence and seek changes from lawmakers.
“The leaders of our country don’t seem to know what to do. Our kids do, they’re walking out here and speaking out for changes,” Campbell said. “Students have power and rights, just like we do. I’m proud of them for doing this.”
Campbell, a Christian, said she thinks that many school shootings and other violent acts are occurring more since prayer is no longer allowed in schools. Among the signs she created, she wrote to urge bringing prayer back into schools.
“As long as evil is out there, it’s going to keep happening,” Campbell said, who is praying for God’s protection for the students. “People are desensitized to it. School shootings seem to be normalized. We need discipline in schools and more school security. We need prayer back in school.”
She said that students in school today are living with stress and anxiety over the possibility of a school shooting or other threats occurring in their school and they want to know they are being protected by security or police and school staff members.
“I feel so bad for the parents and grandparents who lost those 17 precious lives,” Campbell said. “I’m praying that doesn’t happen here in Downingtown.”
The demonstrations were not open to the public or media outlets.
Downingtown East High School students, also in the Downingtown Area School District, participated in the voluntary walkout to demand change and use their voices, as well as to commemorate the 17 the victims who died this past Valentine’s Day in the Florida school shooting. Students read off the 17 names and included a brief description about each victim.
“No one wants to go to school scared for our lives, but that is the reality we live in,” Downingtown East student Atalya Koss said to the Daily Local News via email. “Something on all of our minds is the idea that it just as easily could have been our school.”
Koss said that during the walkout the students talked about the importance of kindness and acceptance because such acts may prevent someone from thinking about or committing violent acts. Students are also hoping that lawmakers are listening to them to find ways to make changes and keep students safe.
“As a whole this walkout has taught me that we may not all agree, but at least it is clear the government can no longer make important decisions in the dark and have the country follow blindly,” Koss said.
At Unionville High School, security was tight but officials there reported no problems and students walked out peacefully.
“As citizens, we know the value of civic discourse to effect change,” said John Sanville, Unionville-Chadds Ford superintendent. “The bedrock upon which our nation was built is the understanding that when people work together to effect change – they do. The greater good for all is well served by questions and challenges to the status quo.”
Henderson High School Principal Dr. Jason Sherlock said that the 600-student walkout was “very powerful.”
The students met at the football stadium.
“I have never been more proud of a group of students in my life,” Sherlock said. “You could have heard a pin drop.”
West Chester Mayor Dianne Herrin said that students took the moment of silence very seriously.
“They have given me hope for my future,” Herrin said.
Henderson students observed two minutes of silence. Biographies were read about each of the victims. Seventeen red roses and white carnations were carried by each of 17 students to commemorate the victims.
The principal said the student-run event lasted about 30 minutes. Police were both inside and outside the building to make sure everyone was safe.
“We talked about making change — a conversation we’re having in this country right now,” Sherlock said. “Since Columbine in 1999, school districts, police departments and legislators are going to promote positive change.”
The SADD Club posted 1,300 post-it notes, on each student locker, spreading positive messages, including, “You’re amazing,” “You’re awesome,” “You’re our favorite teacher,” and “Believe in yourself.”
As Henderson students filed back into the school, many were handed voter registration applications.
“They realize they need to get engaged and vote and become part of the solution,” Herrin said.
At Rustin High School about 200 cards were held by students. Each represented the approximately 200 students killed since the Columbine tragedy in 1999.
At East High School, 300 students walked out, at Henderson High School about 600 students participated and at Rustin High School 600 to 700 students walked out. More than 700 Stetson Middle School students participated in a moment of silence in the auditorium and cafeteria, at Peirce Middle School 850 to 900 students took part in a moment of silence in the auditorium and cafeteria and 700 Fugett Middle School students participated in a moment of silence in the auditorium and cafeteria.
At Avon Grove High School, student leaders planned and led the activity. In addition to posting pictures of the victims from Florida, each name was read by students over the PA system. Students stood quietly in the hallways and courtyards of the school in honor of those who lost their lives.
At Kennett High School security was tight with police at every entrance. No one was allowed on school property.
Superintendent Barry Tomasetti said their main priority was for the students. “Our main concern is for student safety,” he said.
Promptly at 10 a.m. students who chose to take part in the walkout exited the rear doors and went to the football field.
Posted across the street from the school, several groups of adults stood by to offer support.
A group of women posted on south Union Street across from the rear doors agreed that they were there because they were pleased that the younger generation was picking up the mantel on school safety.
“We’re here to support the students and we care about their safety,” said P.J. Harris.
Crystal Dyer, whose ninth-grade daughter participated in the walkout, said she was there to see how it went. She added that the school had sent out letters to all the parents ahead of time keeping them up to date. “They said they neither supported or disparaged the movement,” she said.
Sharon Managle of Kennett Square said, “I’m here to support them. … Isn’t it an awful way to go to school, to worry about safety?”
Local lawyer and township supervisor Scudder Stevens said, “The word is solidarity.”
Many students at Coatesville Area Senior High walked out of class at 10 a.m. and stood outside the high school buildings together for 17 minutes in honor of the shooting victims in Parkland. Students stayed on school grounds for the duration of the walkout. This was a closed event for students and staff in the district, not open to the general public. Police and emergency vehicles were parked at entrances to the school to prevent vehicle traffic into the campus.
The Caln Township Police Department complimented the students for their participation in the walkout in a message posted on their Facebook page.
“The CTPD would like to extend our compliments to the student bodies at both the Coatesville Area High School campus as well as the CCIU Learning Center on their peaceful but meaningful participation in the demonstrations during the National School Walkout event held at many schools across the country today,” the message read. “Also, our appreciation to the school administrations for recognizing and encouraging our youths’ rights to assemble and make their voices heard.”
Digital First Media staff writers Ginger Rae Dunbar, Fran Maye, Michael P. Rellahan, Bill Rettew Jr., Chris Barber, and Lucas M. Rodgers contributed to this story.