#NeverAgain protest

‘Really scared and extremely angry’: Why Colorado students are walking out of school Wednesday

From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar)

They want this time to be different.

Whether they’re walking out of school on Wednesday to call for new gun laws or whether they’re “walking in” to broader community conversations about violence, Colorado students told Chalkbeat they want the 17 lives lost a month ago in Florida to serve as an impetus for changes that have proven elusive for years.

Students at dozens of schools around Colorado are planning to walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, part of a national action to commemorate the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March, has recorded more than 2,500 planned walkouts around the country.

The issue of mass shootings has a terrible resonance in Colorado, where the murder of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999 shaped a generation. Last year, that attack fell off the list of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.

Colorado has been the site of two other school shootings that quickly passed from national awareness: the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis, in which Emily Keyes was killed, and the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, in which Claire Davis was killed.

Students in the Denver metro area also have a history of political activism. They’ve walked out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and in support of classmates and teachers affected by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Unlike in other parts of the country, many, though not all, school leaders here support and facilitate these walkouts, rather than threaten students with punishment.

At the same time, some students have chosen other ways to respond that they find more meaningful than walking out of school.

Here’s what these Colorado students had to say about why they’re doing what they’re doing:

“I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District, was upset and worried after the shooting in Parkland. People with unstable minds know schools are easy targets, she said. It’s a feeling she’s lived with since middle school.

Back then, she said, “I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

Clute, 17, plans to participate in Wednesday’s walkout because she wants to see real changes that make schools safer.

“I feel like even though this movement is getting pretty big, I think it will get even more attention as people show that they’re serious and they care about it.”

While Clute acknowledges that gun control is a “political minefield,” she said she’d like to see a return to an Obama-era rule that prevented some people with mental health conditions from buying guns.

She’d also like to see stepped-up school security. She’s heard talk about arming teachers and while she thinks that could help, she said, “I don’t feel like all teachers should have guns, at the same time.”

“Really scared and extremely angry”

Saroja Manickam, 15, is one of several students at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado helping organize Wednesday’s walkout at her school. The sophomore, who said she’s been doing lockdown drills at school since first grade, was moved to get involved after the deadly shooting in Florida.

Saroja Manickam, a sophomore at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado.

“When I read the news about the Parkland shooting I was just really scared and extremely angry about what was happening,” she said.

Manickam believes the Parkland shooting has resonated so strongly across the country because, “It’s the youth, it’s the kids from the actual shooting talking about it.”

Manickam said the point of her high school’s walkout is to spur action, though she also recognizes the tension in talking about gun control in a rural community where many people use firearms recreationally.

“We’re not saying we need to take away all guns,” she said. “This is to honor the victims and say something should be done.”

Manickam and her fellow walkout organizers have met with their principal and gotten permission to walk along a stretch of road in front of the school. She hasn’t made the sign she’ll carry yet, but she’s considering this message: “Could I be next?”

“Staying in and finishing what they started”

Eighteen-year-old Jabari Lottie is not planning to walk out of school Wednesday. Instead, the senior at northeast Denver’s Manual High School is helping plan a “walk-in” later this month so students from several nearby schools can come together to talk about gun violence.

The events that occurred happened while students were in the building,” Lottie said. “I feel like walking out is almost more disrespectful than staying in and finishing what they started.”

Manual High School student Jabari Lottie. (Courtesy Jabari Lottie)

Lottie has participated in protests before, joining other Manual students in walking out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He was also part of a walk-in at which Manual students hosted Denver police officers for a conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the community. He said he preferred the conversation.

“We did a silent walkout and yeah, the people saw us in the streets, policemen saw us in the streets, but at the end of the day, it’s only a representation of what we think,” Lottie said. “But (with) a walk-in, we can really have a discussion.”

The planned walk-in on gun violence will feature students leading conversations about the necessity of guns and the dangers of them, the arguments for and against stricter gun control laws, and how other countries regulate guns compared to the United States, Lottie said.

Lottie said he believes something has to be done to keep people from killing each other with guns, a problem he sees as uniquely American. “If we all didn’t have guns, these altercations would not end in violence and mass shootings wouldn’t occur,” he said.

“It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, a senior at Hinkley High School in Aurora, said the Parkland shooting had a magnified impact at her school when students were placed on lockout the same day.

It’s not entirely clear what happened. There was a report of someone in the school with a gun, Aurora police said, but a gun was never found. Three juveniles were charged with trespassing. A spokesman for the school district said the lockout was a precaution, and the police determined the school was safe.

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, Hinkley High School, Aurora (Courtesy Brianna Mauricio-Perez)

Mauricio-Perez said many students and parents feel the school district didn’t provide enough information about the incident and some question whether the correct response was used if the threat was reported inside the school.

“It started making us feel unsafe,” Mauricio-Perez said. “Even though nobody was hurt this time, what is it going to take for something to change?”

When she walks out Wednesday, Mauricio-Perez wants to send a message to her Aurora school district that communication should improve between students, parents, and officials so that all can work together to help keep schools safe. She also wants lawmakers to consider gun regulations.

“Things have to change,” she said. “It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

“We need to show that this time will be different.”

A few weeks ago, Madeline Dean and several of her classmates from the Denver School of Science and Technology’s Stapleton campus went to the Colorado Capitol to testify against a bill that would have allowed people with concealed carry permits to bring handguns on to school grounds.

This bill, sponsored by a survivor of the Columbine massacre who now serves as the top Republican in the House, is part of Colorado’s perennial gun debate. Every year, Democrats kill this legislation after hours of emotional testimony.

It was there that students from DSST: Stapleton heard about the walkouts and started talking about doing their own. Many people thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point, said Dean, a senior, especially because the victims were so young. But nothing happened. She hopes this time is different.

“There is a lot of fear when you go to school and when you have lockdown drills,” Dean said. “In a lot of ways, students are directly affected by this, but they haven’t spoken out before. … Now that it’s happened again, we need to show that this time will be different, and we won’t accept this anymore.”

Dean sees the problem of gun violence as much broader than just mass shootings.

“A lot of people aren’t thinking about how it’s connected to other issues like police brutality and mental health,” she said. “We don’t talk about that, but people who care about those issues should care about this one.”

“We are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

Caitlin Danborn, a 17-year-old junior at Arvada West High School in Jeffco, decided to organize a walkout at her school because she was inspired by the students in Florida, upset that shootings continue to happen, and worried after threats were made at her school just days after the shooting in Florida.

Caitlin Danborn, 17, Arvada West High School, Jeffco. (Courtesy photo)

“That really spoke to everyone at our school,” Danborn said. “We’ve had tightened security measures since then. We have to do things like sign out when we go to the bathroom.”

School administrators heard about Danborn’s plans when her Facebook event for the walkout had about 50 people confirming they would participate. Working with the administration, teachers, and other students, Danborn said the plans for Wednesday’s walkout will call for students to walk across the school to a field where students will form the shape of a heart. A drone will take aerial photos. Throughout the day, there will be letter-writing stations at the school where students can write a letter to their representatives.

“We wanted to have something tangible and very intentional that would be very visible,” Danborn said.

She thinks it’s unfortunate that students who are in fear have to stand up for change, but says that is why things are different after the Parkland shootings.

“I hope that people can see unity, and they can see that school safety and gun violence are two issues kids feel passionately about — enough that we’re willing to get up and walk out and do something visible,” Danborn said. “I also hope they can see that we are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

“People will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’”

Eighth-graders Ada Youngstrom, Lillian Lemme, and Rachel Zizmor say they’re motivated to walk out of school by love for the community they have at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver.

“One of the big things we were talking about when we presented to our classmates is that one person with a gun could destroy our community,” Youngstrom, 13, said. “Skinner is a family, and gun violence has made us understand that that could go away so fast.”

From left: Lillian Lemme, Rachel Zizmor, Ada Youngstrom, all eighth-graders at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver. (Courtesy Ada Youngstrom)

The students all come from politically active families, attended the Women’s March, and frequently discuss current events in social studies class. They’re frustrated that previous school shootings haven’t created any policy changes, and they don’t want this one to fade from the public eye.

“One thing I really want adults and politicians to take from this is that we’re not going to forget anymore,” Youngstrom said. “I’m never going to forget about the 17 (people) who are killed. From the day of the shooting on, we are holding their memories and their lives in our hands. I’m not going to just stand by.”

The organizers are hoping that between 300 and 600 students will walk out of school. Seventeen students will stand outside the school to represent the 17 lives lost as their classmates march out to West 38th Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is that because 38th is a busy street, people will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’ and know that we are doing something and maybe become aware,” said Lemme, 14. “If there’s a procession of 300 to 600 students, that’s not something you can ignore.”

The students said they know that walkouts by themselves won’t change laws, but it’s a way to honor the lives lost and keep the pressure on policy makers.

“This is powerful because it’s silent to show respect for the students in Florida, but by itself, it’s not going to change anything,” Zizmor, 14, said. “It’s a step in the right direction. … Just because we’re kids and we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.”

“17 different things that would make a change”

The eighth-graders organizing the walkout at Denver’s Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver are hoping to focus on more than just the debate over gun control. Part of their goal is to give their fellow students different ways to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

They’ve timed their walkout to last 17 minutes, with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders each leaving school through different doors and taking similarly timed routes to the same public park. There, the students will read the names of the 17 victims and hold a moment of silence for each.

But for those who don’t want to walk out, or who want to do something more, the students are offering another option – one with its very own hashtag: #What’sYour17? The idea is to encourage teenagers to do “17 different things that would make a change,” said 13-year-old Jackie Estrada Hernandez, one of the students planning the walkout.

Those things could be as simple as smiling at 17 new people, the students said.

“It would help the community out because some people have problems, but if you smile and give them a compliment or something, it would probably make their day,” said Elena Skaro, 14.

Emanuel Lamboy, 13, had a different take.

“I imagine I’m smiling at the 17 people that died and trying to commemorate them,” he said.

 

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation.