Photo: An image from the Belmont High School National School Walkout. (Special thanks to Seneca Hart and Sonya Epstein for making the rally photos available.)
On Wednesday morning, March 21, about three dozen people made up of parents, residents, town officials and the media stood on Concord Avenue near the exit of the access road leading from Belmont High School. Bundled up against a cold east wind, the adults came to support those students taking part in the “ENOUGH: National School Walkout” protest.
But the residents’ location was more than a quarter mile away from the school, having been barred from coming close enough to be seen or heard by the students. Belmont Police vehicles were stationed 100 meters along the access road from the school’s entrance, blocking the public and press from coming any closer to the walkout. Police officers told press representatives that the public way as “school department property.” producing a map on a mobile device from the Office of Community Development purporting to show the property surrounding the high school including all the land, paths and roadways around Clay Pit Pond.
“They control it,” said a Belmont Police officer.
In a letter sent to a parent of one of the walkout organizers, Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan wrote that students “safety,” and preserving the educational integrity of the school required the event being held far from the public and press. The student organizers – Lydia Fick, Seneca Hart, Gayané Kaligian and Georgia Sundahl – had reached out to the media to help promote their cause and allow the greater Belmont community to hear what they had to say on effective measures to reduce gun violence at all schools. But the department’s purported concerns for the students trumped the campaigners’ efforts to raise the debate beyond an assembly at the high school.
At 10 a.m., what appeared to be groups of student began assembling in the plaza at the school’s entrance and on the roadway. Then … silence. What was being said, who was being honored, how Belmont students were reacting to the tragic events of last month was lost in the distance the Belmont school department deemed necessary to keep the students safe from the greater community.
At the same time Belmont students were meeting, two-and-a-half miles away a similar walkout took place at Watertown High School. The home of Belmont’s traditional sports rival, several hundred students stood outside that school’s front entrance to hear speeches and stand in silence as the names of the 17 students, teachers and staff killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were read and a candle placed on a table in their honor.
But rather than police stationed to limit access, anyone who came to the Watertown walkout was welcomed. The students were joined by a dozen members of Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice and the Environment who assembled across the street.
As reported by Charlie Breitrose, editor of the Watertown News, the powerful comments of Watertown High students provided context to the event, one which was not lost on students and the public.
“The lack of stricter gun regulation is putting our lives at risk,” said Watertown junior Seren Theriaul. “This Walk Out is not a protest against our school but yet against a government that has failed us.”
Other Watertown students urged continued activism on preventing gun violence at schools. “The group behind the Walk Out will organize voter registration drives at Watertown High School, and he encouraged students to stay involved through events such as the March to End Gun Violence rally in Boston and on Saturday, March 24,” wrote Breitrose.
“If you have an idea or passion or belief and if you are a liberal or you are a conservative, make your idea be heard,” said senior Jeremy Ornstein. “No one side will make these schools safe, we need every voice.”
“Today, Watertown, let’s mourn quietly and tomorrow let’s keep our voices loud,” Ornstein said. “Parkland, I’m so sorry.”
In Belmont, student photos of the rally began popping up on social media. Images of kids in a crowd, arms around each other, demonstrating solidarity. Yet the collection of pictures resembled one of the so many events that take place at the school; a Memorial Day remembrance, a sports celebration, the first day of school.
As the students began moving back into the school, the residents along Concord Avenue started loudly chanting that they supported their cause and action.
But it appeared that no one at the school could hear.