MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Columbia High School students walked out of their classrooms on the morning of March 14 to stand in solidarity with high schools around the country as they protested gun violence in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Almost all of the school’s nearly 2,000 students, with the support of teachers and district administration, stood on the front lawn of CHS for 17 minutes to honor the 17 people killed in Florida.
“The week of Parkland, we started planning this,” Nadia Benslimane, a member of CHS Students for Justice, told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “We started talking to the clubs and have been working on it since then.”
Ben Lipkin, another member of Students for Justice, told the News-Record that the walkout gave CHS students the chance to advocate for their own safety as well as that of their peers nationwide.
“In high school we can (at least) rally around one issue,” Lipkin said. “We’re on the receiving end of this, because the victims are the students.”
Black Student Union member Sage Johnson said the walkout gave students a chance to make their own voices heard.
“Students can be heard,” she told the News-Record at the event. “This gives students a voice to use their platform and be heard.”
As one of the organizers of the walkout, Johnson asked for support for students in crisis.
“We the students demand increased resources for students in crisis,” she said. “We the students demand that our school provide adequate resources to identify and support students in crisis.”
According to CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron, the students did all the work to organize and hold the walkout themselves, with support from the staff and administration.
“They were taking their cue from students in Florida, in Baltimore, in Chicago and all around the country,” Aaron told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “They planned it, they did it. They have a passion for it.”
Aaron said very few students chose not to participate in the walkout, and communication with parents and community members was handled well. Parents were not permitted to be a part of the protest because Aaron said the school wanted to keep the spotlight on the students.
“We heard from parents who wanted to line the streets and be here and that’s fine,” Aaron said. “But we wanted it to be about the students. It’s not easy to stage a walkout at 10 a.m. but they did a nice job. We’re proud of them.”
Maplewood interim Chief of Police Jimmy DeVaul also said the walkout was for the students to express their opinions, and they were the priority of the department’s officers, who were stationed along Parker Avenue for the event.
“We want to make sure they can say what they want to say and that it’s safe to do so,” DeVaul told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “It’s about the students, not about parents or the public. We support the school and our role is to support them and let the public know where they can be.”
Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca was also at the protest, observing and speaking to students. He said that seeing CHS students speaking out and participating in the protest was encouraging.
“It’s inspiring to see young people speaking out,” DeLuca told the News-Record in an interview at the event. “My generation has failed to deal with this. I’m moved to see their thoughtfulness and see that they’re protesting and marching and going to be voting. It’s important to speak up, because that’s our future.”
CHS senior Sarah Wolf, a member of Students for Justice, also spoke about the importance of young people voting in an interview with the News-Record at the event.
“There’s a lot of media coverage, but students are unaware of what we can actually do,” Wolf said. “Too often people don’t voice their opinions. We’ll be the ones voting this year and everyone should feel that their voices are necessary.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic