Students in Alachua County faced pressure not to walk out after the Parkland shootings.
AAt 9:50 a.m. on April 20, junior Jovanna Liuzzo waited by the track at the fields at Eastside High School for the students who were due to walkout for Unity Day, a day of action against gun violence.
The clock hit 10:00 a.m., and students began to trickle out of the doors. At first, just a few crossed the field, then more and more until a sea of students dressed in orange—the color of the t-shirts Liuzzo made to increase gun violence awareness—descended on the track.
“Some of the students started coming out early on,” Liuzzo said. “Then around 10:10, 10:15, all of them gathered on the track.” The hot Florida sun on their backs, the students circled the track, chanting and holding signs. When all was said and done, they had walked over a mile.
Since the Parkland shooting in February, high school students across Alachua County have organized, gone to town halls and met with officials to advocate for safety in their classrooms. In between taking the SAT and studying for AP exams, they’ve met at each other’s houses after school, made posters and designed t-shirts.
“We printed hundreds and hundreds of flyers and spent all week promoting the event,” Liuzzo said. “And I definitely think we achieved [our goal.]”
Organized to coincide with the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, Unity Day was focused on gun control and educating students to enact change. It was the last action before school gets out for the summer.
In order for Unity Day to happen, student organizers had to meet with their principals and get permission for the event. While Liuzzo did not experience any pushback, some student organizers had more difficulty.
Gavin Pinto, a Buchholz junior, student council member and organizer, told his principal James TenBieg in February that students wanted to have an in-school walkout.
In response, TenBieg offered different suggestions of activities that would allow students to voice their opinions, such as providing specific times for students to talk to adults, peers and law enforcement in the community about their feelings.
The students felt that talking about their feelings was not enough to enact change. They wanted to take action. The Buchholz administration’s response to their concerns was less than ideal.
Pinto said the students were made to feel like their opinions didn’t matter.
TenBieg said that was “totally false.”
“A lot of times kids hear what they want to hear,” he added. TenBieg felt like the meeting was handled appropriately.
“We are very responsive [and] supportive of the students’ wants and needs,” TenBieg said. “I was asked to go down and talk to the student council and was confronted.”
After TenBieg learned that this article was about the administration’s response to the student walkouts, he crossed his hands and reclined in his chair.
“Are you gonna make me look good? Because you know what’s going to happen if you don’t make me look good, right? I’m not gonna let another journalist in here to talk to me because you didn’t make me look good,” he said.
“A lot of students are fed up and frustrated with what’s going on, but they don’t know the first step.”
Pinto said he understands why the administration would be concerned about safety. But students feel like these concerns undermine the point of the walkouts: To do more than talk about gun violence, to actually take action.
Without support from their administration, students worried that participating in these walkouts would get them reprimanded and go on their college applications.
According to TenBieg, the reason for the students’ issues with the administration’s response lies outside of their own opinions.
“You’re the product of your environment,” he said. “Sometimes the parents get a little bit out of control. You know, ‘how dare you not permit my son or daughter to voice their concerns.’”
In the future, TenBieg said communication between the two parties will allow the administration to appropriately address students’ concerns.
“[We’ll] be open minded, be concerned,” TenBieg said. “[And] look for a possible activity or solution to get their point across.”
After the students’ initial meeting with TenBieg, Pinto took to Twitter to voice his frustrations. Other students in the county, including Liuzzo, began to reach out to him, either with sympathy or similar stories of pushback. Many students worried that if they walked out without explicit permission from their administration, they could be put in detention or possibly suspended.
Within hours, a group message of nearly 20 local students who were planning walkouts at their schools was formed to brainstorm ideas for organizing.
Because their administrations wouldn’t allow a walkout during school hours, in March Liuzzo, Pinto and other student organizers began planning a march outside of school as an alternative
“We were trying to show that everyone’s on board,” Pinto said. “And [we’re not] having people go out for the wrong reasons.”
In contrast to their administration, students largely feel supported by their teachers. Even though some teachers might withhold from making political statements for fear of backlash from parents or higher ups, there are many have helped the student activists, discreetly or otherwise.
Prior to Let Us March, one teacher — who Pinto said he wouldn’t name out of fear it might compromise their job — provided the students with materials to make posters for the event. Teachers involved with National Women’s Liberation and the Women’s March have also advised them on techniques for protesting
Liuzzo said that students at Eastside have also had the benefit of working with an encouraging administration as well.
When Liuzzo’s original idea for Unity Day — an afterschool event with voter registration booths and guest speakers — didn’t work out due to a school board policy against political endorsements at school-sponsored events, Eastside Principal Shane Andrew worked with her to come up with new plans for the day.
“I have had constant communication with my principal,” Liuzzo said.
At Eastside, Liuzzo formed a committee of students to organize Unity Day.
The committee printed and passed out flyers with the timeline for the day and made signs for the walkout. Liuzzo also obtained information packets from the Women’s March that explain current political issues and the voting process to pass out to students at lunch.
“A lot of students are fed up and frustrated with what’s going on, but they don’t know the first step,” Liuzzo said
Liuzzo also made shirts to sell to spread the word about Unity Day. The orange shirts, with a white design of a peace sign surrounded by the words “We are victims. We are students. We are change” on the back. The profits went to the GoFundMe for Anthony Borges, the Parkland student who was shot while shielding his classmates.
Ten minutes before the students at Eastside were set to walk out, the news broke that a student at Forest High School in Ocala was wounded in a shooting.
“I was really shaken up by that,” Liuzzo said. “Us coming together and still having the event showed something.”
They were joined out on the track by teachers who had their planning periods at that time and were able to walk out in solidarity.
“We’re really trying to emphasize the unity part of it,” Pinto said. “Coming together as one to just show the whole school board that other schools are into this all together.”
At 10:45, the walkout ended, and the students returned to class. When the lunch bell chimed, crowds of students pushed into the open air cafeteria area, just like they would any other day. Instead of heading to sit at the round lunch tables and eat with their friends, they rushed to join their peers in line at voter registration booths.
“A big, big part of Unity Day that I wanted to achieve was… [to] give students the tools that they need to make their voice heard,” Liuzzo said.
During the registration drive, many students participated in an interactive art project by student Varvara Folimonova. She painted one of the students’ hands blue or red, and had them press it onto white paper. Then, she had them write down what they think democracy should look like.
Over the summer, students will be taking advantage of the extra freetime to hold more events and plan for the future.
One event they’re planning for the summer is “Art for Advocacy,” which will focus on using creative expression and the performing arts as a way to encourage political change.
Liuzzo recently filed to register a chapter of Students Demand Action in Gainesville. She and Pinto plan to use the summer to get the initiative off the ground and form an event planning board.
“As [the events] go on, they’ll be bigger and bigger,” Pinto said. “We’ll bring the whole city together.” •