Superintendents say 17-minute protest in wake of shooting provides students with opportunity to safely express thoughts

Sending a cluster of 17 balloons soaring toward the clouds.

Observing 17 minutes of silence.

Engaging in conservations with 17 students you haven’t met before, reinforcing everyone’s vital role within their school community.

Ralls County R-II Superintendent Dr. Tara Lewis suggested these activities for students who plan to participate in a National School Walkout from 10 to 10:17 a.m. Tuesday, March 14 — one month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty members. Students across the nation and throughout Northeast Missouri are expected to participate in the event, and local school district officials are embracing the opportunity for students to express their views, share their emotions and pay their respects peacefully.

Hannibal Public Schools Superintendent Susan Johnson said the walkout will serve as a “teachable moment” for students and faculty, and she echoed Lewis’ comment that students will be supervised for safety during the opportunity to raise their voices together.

“We want our kids to have empathy and recognize things like that,” she said. “And we also want them to know how to say something that they believe strongly in — in an appropriate manner. I think that’s important for all of us to do, and to know how to do.”

Students in every building within the Hannibal Public School District will have the opportunity to gather in a supervised location, and Johnson emphasized that the event will not interfere with the school day’s scheduled lessons and projects. No student will be required to participate in a walkout.

After the 17 minutes have elapsed, students will return to their classes.

Johnson said she read news reports that students in other districts planned activities such as reading aloud the names of each of the 17 victims — she pointed out that choices like that will be left up to the students. School officials are providing a safe location and supervision, but the event is not a district-led function.

“But I don’t know what our kids will do,” she said. “I don’t know which route they’ll go to recognize that.”

The National School Walkout’s theme is organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, and is symbolized by the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough. According to the group’s website, the goals of the walkout are to honor the lives of people who died as a result of gun violence and to call for action to change the situation. The #EnoughIsEnough movement is entirely student-led — organized by a group of youth from all over the nation.

“We believe, as youth, it is imperative we have spaces where our voices are being heard. We don’t need adults speaking on our behalf,” according to a statement on the group’s website.

Lewis echoed the sentiment about students’ freedoms.

“As a public school, we must respect all views within our community. All students have the right to free speech, and we support their efforts to engage in the democratic process,” Lewis wrote in a letter sent to parents. “In respect of all views, we do not dismiss classes for any walkouts, peaceful protests or other demonstrations.”

Palmyra R-I Superintendent Kirt Malone stressed that district officials support students’ rights to peaceful assembly and free expression. Although administrators were not yet aware of any students or faculty members who planned to participate in the walkout, Malone said administrators and School Resource Officer Patrick Anderson would be ready to guide people to a safe location if they wish to participate.

Lewis said students across the nation are planning events for the next two months, with the next demonstration scheduled for Friday, April 20 — the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.

For more information about the National School Walkout demonstrations, search “Enough! National School Walkout” on Facebook.

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com