OBHS students plan to join school walkout this week


Oyster Bay High School sophomore Alessandra Martorella will be late for her fourth-period class on March 14. She will be joining other students, and perhaps some faculty, too, outside the high school to take part in the National School Walkout, a protest against gun violence. The date of the walkout is one month after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people died that day, mostly students. The walkout, which is to take place at 10 a.m. in each time zone for 17 minutes, will also honor those victims.

“This is a protest for your school to say you want stricter gun laws,” Alessandra, 15, said. “I found out about it on a social media page and decided to promote it myself so people from other school districts will do it, too.”

The national walkout was organized by EMPOWER, the Women’s March youth branch. The #EnoughWalkout, which began as a Facebook event, has been fueled by people like Alessandra, who have helped to get the word out by promoting it themselves.

It is in part a protest against what has become a frequent tweet by Congressional members of “thoughts and prayers” after school shootings — and what organizers see as lawmakers’ inaction to stop another school shooting from happening. “We demand Congress pass sensible legislation that would help keep us and our loved ones safe from gun violence at school, and beyond,” reads the group’s statement. “Since Sandy Hook there have been over 200 school shootings resulting in over 400 people shot.”

The group’s website includes a toolkit to assist youth in organizing “. . . to create high school and college chapters that guide students in making a positive impact in their communities . . . [and] prepare young people with the skills and commitments to take action around causes that matter to them with courage, compassion and collaboration.”

Oyster Bay High Principal Sharon Lasher said she has been meeting with students to come up with something meaningful and safe. There are plans for a 15-minute pre-walkout event in the gym prior to the protest outside. The chorus and wind ensemble will perform, and a student will read a poem written to honor the victims. “Then we’ll walk out the back of the gym to the field,” Lasher said. “Seventeen minutes is a long time to keep 750 kids quiet, but I’m willing to try.”

There may be students who choose to walk out the front doors, who will not be stopped, she said, adding that she “doesn’t condone it. Every school in America will have kids sitting out there like sitting ducks. We will have the security staff in the back.”

People have different ideas about what should be done to better protect students.

“I’m in favor of armed security and armed teachers,” said John Napolitano, an attorney who lives in East Norwich. His twins graduated from Oyster Bay High in 2010. “Eighteen states already have armed teachers,” he said. “Teachers should be given a bonus for being armed and of course trained. They’d be putting their lives on the line.”

This would be effective, Napolitano said, because it takes police 10 minutes to get to Oyster Bay’s schools.

“The teachers’ training would be updated each year,” he added. “And the guns would be concealed on the teachers. All licensed gun holders are responsible for securing their weapons.”

Janice Verga, of Oyster Bay Cove, a registered nurse, worries about her grandchildren. She would like to see meaningful gun legislation enacted. “We are at war with ourselves,” she said. “What is happening in this country is awful and disappointing.”

Verga does not want teachers armed. “I think it is awful that they want to put guns in the hands of teachers,” she said. “I don’t think they are capable. How good would their judgment be? Would they be able to kill another child with a gun?”

She is also against arming school security guards, would like to see assault rifles banned and the age to purchase guns raised to 21.

She supports the student walkout. “I’m so proud of the kids,” she said. “They aren’t babies, like the children from Sandy Hook. They have voices. These kids will never forget what happened in Florida, and will be the leaders of change.”

Alex Gallego, a local business owner and the president of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Chamber of Commerce, said he believed a discussion is needed. “It’s time for our community and schools to have a healthy conversation,” he said. “We have to listen to both sides, so we can understand the differing points of view.”

The district is considering the Rave system, an app installed on school administrators’ phones. Rave allows for police to be alerted directly if there is an active shooter or medical emergency. Once the app is engaged, a call is placed to 911 allowing police access to all of a school’s security cameras. By knowing exactly where an incident is taking place, the hope is that police response will be faster, and more effective. According to the Nassau County Police Department, 40 of 56 county school districts are using the Rave system. 

Napolitano supports using Rave, but doesn’t believe it’s enough. “It’s great if the police are actively involved, but it has to be a conglomeration of different techniques, including new infrastructure to keep intruders out,” he said. “Armed security guards and teachers have to be in the equation. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Alessandra Martorella agrees in part with Napolitano. “I feel like our school hasn’t done enough,” she said. “A security guard should be armed. They’re all ex-cops and are there to protect us. What are they protecting us with?”