*NOTE: As students prepare for a walkout this week, The Flat Hat spoke with students planning protests across campus and took a closer look at existing weapons policies and what the state’s lawmakers are doing in response to student voices.
By Nia Kitchin
For 17 minutes on Wednesday, March 15, at 10 a.m., students all across the country will be leaving their classrooms and walking out for gun control. Each minute honors each of the 17 victims killed at Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 by a student armed with a gun.
In Williamsburg, walkouts will occur at the College of William and Mary, Jamestown High School, Lafayette High School, Warhill High School, Berkeley Middle School, Lois S. Hornsby Middle School and Toano Middle School.
These walkouts were organized by the students at their respective institutions. Neither faculty nor staff have endorsed or sanctioned the walkout either at the College or at any of the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. Students have pushed for these walkouts, which aim to raise awareness for gun violence and to prevent what happened at Stoneman Douglas High School from happening again.
Middle and high school students participating in the WJCC school district shared their plans with administrators, who worked with student leaders to plan the walk out. Students who walk out for the specified 17 minutes at 10 a.m. will not face repercussions; however, students who leave campus or who disrupt the school day will be subject to disciplinary action. Because of the walk out, community access to JWCC school campuses will be limited during that time. WJCC has said that they respect the right of students to assemble peacefully and practice free speech, and that this can prepare students for the real world.
“Virginia’s new Profile of a Graduate identifies Community Engagement and Civic Responsibility as areas for us to develop the life-ready individual, and this event provides us with an opportunity for a ‘teachable moment’ for all of our students,” a WJCC press release about the walkouts said.
WJCC Director of Public Relations and Engagement Betsy Overkamp-Smith said that, while students are free to participate in the walk out, teachers and staff are not. She also said that the Student Code of Conduct applies throughout the day, and while students are allowed to chant and hold signs, violating the code will not be allowed.
High school students walking out across the country need not worry about their admission prospects with the College. The Office of Undergraduate Admission released a statement assuring prospective students that engaging in peaceful protest would not jeopardize their chances of admission.
“For 325 years, William & Mary has encouraged its students to think critically and ask difficult questions,” The William and Mary Admissions Office said in a press release. “ Today, we live in a time that needs thoughtful dialogue and determined action. Our faith in this generation of students to lead us forward could not be stronger.”
Organizers Samyuktha Mahadevan ’19 and Matthew McCauley ’20, said that the walkout at the College will officially last for 17 minutes and take place on the Sunken Garden. However, Mahadevan said that they expect it will last longer than that because students will need time to walk out of classes in academic buildings farther away from the Sunken Garden.
In addition to the walkout, Mahadevan said that the two organizers plan to hand out flyers promoting a club they plan to start in the fall, offer participants a stamp for their hands and distribute postcards for participants to write to their representatives with legislative concerns.
The organizers will also ask participants to wear orange — the color of solidarity in the fight against gun violence.
Mahadevan and McCauley said they organized and promoted the walkout mainly through social media and saw a greater response than they had expected. Currently the Facebook event shows that 263 people have said they will attend the walkout and 461 have said they are interested. Mahadevan and McCauley said they would be pleased if those numbers reflect the actual event turnout.
According to Mahadevan, the purpose of the walkout is to raise awareness for gun violence and create an inclusive discussion on campus about this topic. She said it is important to come out and show solidarity for this one event, but even more important to remain engaged and persist in this mission.
“The goal is to get people to persist in this mission, and I think that when we have such a high expected turnout, if even a small percentage of those people move forward with this issue, then we can become a more engaged student body,” Mahadevan said.
The club that Mahadevan and McCauley plan to start would be called Students Demand Action and would address issues of gun violence and gun control. They said that having this structure in place will be helpful to organize and effect change. In addition, they said this club would be bipartisan, intersectional and open to everyone.
“One of the main goals is to give students the voice,” McCauley said. “The voice to speak out for change. I think that too often students don’t think they can do anything in our government or in the real world … students think that they have to graduate college and be in the workforce to do anything, but no. We can do it right now.”
Students have been advocating for legislative change since the Parkland shooting Feb. 14. The NextGen and Virginia21 chapters on campus organized a phonebank Saturday, Feb. 24 in support of survivors of the shooting; students called constituents for two hours to show their support for gun safety legislation.
But for McCauley, advocating for gun violence awareness is not just for one side of the political spectrum. McCauley said he considers it important for the walkout at the College to be a non-partisan event because the issue of gun violence transcends party lines. For him, the walkout is a path to progress, not a way to push a party agenda.
“There are no strings attached to any party, this is just a very humane movement,” Mahadevan said.
This issue is personal for many students. For example, McCauley said that the fear and feeling of unsafety he experienced during a violence threat at his high school encouraged him to become more involved in preventing gun violence.
“I remember showing up that day and no one was there, there were cops everywhere, dogs, and I was like, ‘This is not where I want to be. I don’t feel safe,’ McCauley said. “So as these shootings continue to happen, I feel more of this responsibility to do something. And I think people here on campus feel that too. … This won’t go away.”
Mahadevan and McCauley said that the reverberations of the Parkland shooting have been more effective because students themselves have been fighting for legislative change. These students, McCauley said, have given the issue a face and the effects of hearing kids plead with legislators for their lives have been powerful. To Mahadevan, political saliency correlates with the simplicity of the issue, and students across the country have made this issue simple.
“These are kids pleading for their lives, saying ‘We don’t want to get shot at school anymore,’ and that message has a much louder tone when it’s coming from kids, the people who are most affected,” McCauley said.
University spokesperson Suzanne Seurattan said that the College respects students’ right to freedom of expression and expects that the walk out this Wednesday will be peaceful.
“Faculty, of course, will determine their own response to student walkouts of individual classes and I can’t speak for them,” Seurattan said in an email. “Those decisions, however, will be made on the foundation that William & Mary is a place where discussion, debate and thoughtful dialogue are part of the educational experience… we value and support all individuals’ rights to free speech, including free expression in the form of peaceful protest.”
McCauley said that this issue of community safety should be very important to everyone, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, especially in a community as tight-knit as the College.
“Since the shooting in Parkland was a school shooting, there’s a particular importance for people in schools to step forward and claim accountability from the representatives for their own safety,” Mahadevan said.
By Sarah Smith
Students around the United States have been participating in classroom walk-outs to protest gun violence, meeting with state and federal legislators and planning letter-writing and phone-banking campaigns. Students at the College of William and Mary are no different — activists have organized an event scheduled for March 14 and are encouraging their peers to wear orange and take 17 minutes to walk out of their classes and meet on the Sunken Garden.
What exactly are these students advocating for? What are Virginia legislators already doing to respond to school shootings like the one that happened Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida?
The Board of Visitors first adopted a policy prohibiting weapons in campus buildings and at College events in 2011. In November 2017, the Board discussed expanding this prohibition, and met in February 2018 to approve these resolutions. According to BOV member Will Payne ’01, the Board asked the College to review these policies earlier in the fall to better promote safety on campus. Now, this policy prohibits weapons at athletic, academic, social, recreational and educational events as well as in vehicles and other outdoor activities on university property.
Beyond expanding the coverage of this prohibition, the amended policy also expands
the repercussions for being caught in violation of campus weapon policies. The 2011 policy stated that someone caught with a weapon would face disciplinary action and be asked to remove the weapon from campus immediately. Now, someone in violation of this policy may also be found subject to arrest for trespassing.
Beyond stricter weapons policies on individual school campuses, many high school and college students are asking administrators to support their protests. Some school districts, like Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, have officially said that all students participating in walk-outs will be seen as “disrupting” classroom environments and as a result, will be liable to face disciplinary consequences.
As students canvassed neighborhoods and called representatives, some Virginia lawmakers were already drafting legislation. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine announced Feb. 27 that he was co-sponsoring the Assault Weapons Ban of 2017, which has three main provisions. It would ban the sale, manufacture, transfer and importation of 205 military-style assault weapons by name, ban any assault weapon that accepts a detachable ammunition magazine and has one or more military characteristics and would ban magazines and other ammunition feeding devices that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
“In the wake of Parkland and countless other tragedies, it’s all too clear that we need to take action to protect our communities from gun violence,” Kaine said in a press statement. “Students and parents across the country are courageously speaking up to shake Congress out of its complacency. We owe it to them to act. This bill is a critical step we can take to help keep weapons of war off our streets and out of our schools.”
This bill includes a grandfather clause exempting all weapons lawfully possessed at the date of its enactment. Additionally, it would require these grandfathered weapons to be stored using safety devices such as a trigger lock, would prohibit the transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines and would ban bump-fire stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at fully automatic rates.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, whose stance on gun control is similar to Kaine’s, said early in January 2018 that for the year’s upcoming legislative session, one of his top priorities would be expanding background checks for all firearm sales. According to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, it is likely that he would propose a type of background check law that would make it a crime for any person to participate in a sale, rental, trade or transfer of a firearm without first having the transaction brokered through a licensed dealer.
In the past, Northam had introduced legislation including a bill that would ban bump stocks, but none made it through the Virginia General Assembly. Now, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, he has reaffirmed his commitment to prioritizing gun control policies. Although U.S. President Donald Trump has voiced support for arming teachers as a measure of prevention of future school shootings, Northam said that he disagrees with this suggestion. He said that he hopes to see federal and state lawmakers work “across the aisle” to come up with solutions.
“I do commend the youth and the energy we are seeing coming out of Florida right now,” Northam said at a press event at the National Governors Association in late February. “That’s not going away, and it shouldn’t go away. Our children go to school every day. We expect them to be safe, to be educated, and we expect them to come home in the evening.”