Student protest in Washington, DC after the school shooting in Parkland, FL. Photo: Lorie Shaull, via flickr
In the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings on American soil, educators are fighting for change.
“We are Heads of schools serving children from nursery through high school,” read a full-page open letter to American lawmakers in the New York Times on February 25. “We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents.”
The letter, signed by 155 heads of school from all across New York State, urged for a move towards limiting access to certain weapons and ammunition to curb gun-related violence.
“Something is out of balance in our society and our culture,” stated David O’Halloran, the headmaster of Saint David’s School on the Upper East Side and the author of the letter in the Times. “And I think we, as educational leaders, needed to stand up and make that heard.”
The recent shooting in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that claimed the lives of 17 victims has prompted an unprecedented call to arms, or rather, a call against them. Students and educators across the country have been leading a movement calling on lawmakers to improve what they see as lax gun control laws to prevent future shootings like the one in Parkland.
And New York educators are at the frontlines.
Signatories include figures such as Binyamin Krauss of SAR Academy, Tony Oroszlany of the Loyola School, Bodie Brizendine of the Spence School, and Joseph J. Ciancaglini of the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
“These private and independent schools represent students from every background,” said the Rev. Daniel K. Lahart, SJ, President of Regis High School on the Upper East Side and a signatory. “We share a common interest in the protection of our students and the hope for a safer world for them and for those who follow them.”
Tara Christie Kinsey, head of school at The Hewitt School on the Upper East Side and signatory echoed this feeling. “The reason why there have never been so many school leaders who have ‘spoken with one voice on behalf of a single issue,’ is because there is nothing more important than the safety of our children,” she said. “This issue is a true unifier.”
Kinsey added, “We hope that our president and lawmakers will answer the call to address easy access to the highly lethal, semi-automatic assault weapons and high-powered ammunition that place our nation’s schools and children in jeopardy.”
Political differences aside, getting 155 heads of school to agree on something was nothing short of remarkable, noted O’Halloran.
“I think they were galvanized around the idea of ‘never again,’ that clarion cry from the survivors of the Parkland Massacre,” O’Halloran remarked. “I think that as leaders of schools, we were moved by that.”
O’Halloran penned a similar letter after the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. At the time, O’Halloran remarked, the letter did not garner a response as large as the one currently stemming from the most recent letter.
But this time around, things have changed. Almost immediately after publishing, O’Halloran began getting emails from other NYC public school principals and heads of school who wanted to be included as signatories on the letter, which is now estimated to contain over 450 signatures.
And it didn’t stop there. Heads of school from other states — New Jersey, Florida, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts — to name a few, reached out to O’Halloran with requests to draft similar letters for their respective states based off of O’Halloran’s original in the Times.
“Five years ago there was nowhere near this kind of response to the same type of effort — a full page ad in the times,” said O’Halloran. “Whereas this time, it’s been a national response — overwhelming — and it hasn’t abated.”
For many of the signatories, the issue at hand is apolitical. “We don’t see this in a political or partisan light,” said Kevin Pendergast, another signatory and the head of the Kildonan School in Amenia, New York. “We see this as almost a national health crisis.”
Students of Kildonan are planning to head to Albany on April 20 to petition lawmakers to push for change on the federal level.
“It’s more to go to Albany to petition lawmakers there to advocate for a better national policy,” said Pendergast, who acknowledged that NY State has relatively more stringent gun laws than most other states. “[We want] to ask them to speak up and to use the New York Safe Act as model for what could happen on the national level.”
Many NYC schools are planning on allowing their students to participate in a 17-minute walkout on March 14 to honor the victims of the shooting and to protest gun violence.
At Regis High School, students who chose to walk out will gather on the city streets outside the school for a moment of silence followed by student-led prayers.
“Our students will, in many different ways, continue to fight for what they think is right,” said Fr. Lahart, who mentioned that the students involved in speech and debate, Regis’ most popular student organization, are already used to using their voices to speak for what they believe in.
“I know that they — and others in their generation — will work together to make this a better world,” he said. “I am proud to work with them, support them, and I am excited to see how they will change the future.”
O’Halloran, like many other signatories, plans to support his students who choose to participate in the national demonstration. His efforts to effect change, he noted, have largely been as a result of the students who have made their voices heard during the aftermath of the massacre.
“When our children speak,” he said, “we need to listen.”