It’s five minutes before 10 a.m., and teachers at North Cobb High School are closing the doors and the administration is securing each classroom.
“No one can go out now,” they tell us in a tone, leaving no room for discussion.
On March 14, the morning of the National School Walkout to honor the 17 students and faculty killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and to protest school gun violence, I had coordinated with my parents to arrange for an excused absence from school. My parents said I could participate in the national walkout and cover the event as a member of VOX ATL’s reporting team.
However, as I made my way toward the front of my school, I observed the following: Administrators were patrolling the halls in high numbers, seemingly looking to target and corner any students making their way toward the front for the walkout. At least eight Cobb County Police vehicles were on site.
North Cobb High administration’s apparent approach was to hinder the walkout by inhibiting a large portion of students from participating in the nationwide event, out of fear of disciplinary action.
As a result, there were three dozen students who left class and sat in protest in the school foyer for 17 minutes. Only three dozen out of approximately 3,000 students who attend North Cobb and the many students who had initially signed the petition for the National Walkout event before the county had condemned it.
I personally experienced resistance as administration officials attempted to redirect me into the attendance office and then out of the doors. I refused, as I had taken the precautions necessary to protect myself and ensure that I was not violating any school policies. I was also exercising my constitutional right to peacefully protest. I was one of the lucky ones. Due to pressure put on the student body, most of us who had been eager to participate had been either scared or forced out of it, whether due to circumstance or threat of disciplinary action.
Thus, at its core, the school’s reaction was not only disappointing but also frightening. I understand why North Cobb High School did not spearhead a school-wide walkout since Cobb County had previously announced it would not condone it, with the reasoning that the student safety needed to be the county’s primary concern. But the same police cars that sat on the grounds of our school to contain and apply pressure to the protesters could have been used to keep the peace during a school-wide walkout. It was very possible for North Cobb High to take different action, like other schools such as Lassiter High that chose to aide the organization of a student walkout. However, our school administrators aggressively targeted the students who wanted to peaceably protest gun violence.
And for 17 minutes, we did sit there peaceably, in utter silence, and in utter stillness. I sat toward the rear of the protesters, the glower of the administration personnel above me. The floor was hard and cold. It matched the mood and tone of the moment. Several of the administrators lorded over us, as well as police officers. Under that pressure and duress, there was an anxiousness to the crowd and a sense of fear. The walkout-turned-sit-in felt less like a moment of solidarity, and more like a small and insignificant disruption made by a tiny band of rebel forces unwilling to back down from an uphill battle.
What had meant to be an empowering moment became one that felt violating. For a very bleak moment, it looked like we were doing this for nothing, like our self-proclaimed movement was devoid of any significance. And then, there was a sound, far off, around a corner. As it grew louder, it caught the attention of both the students participating in the sit-in and school personnel. The suspense of the moment only broke when another dozen and a half students came marching down the hall in a large group, late, but there, ready to join us in solidarity.
My heart had nearly burst from my chest at that moment. I had never been so proud of my peers. However, despite our small moment of triumph, facts remain facts. It was an inescapable certainty that our numbers, though nearly doubled after our late arrivals settled in, would not be enough to enact change on a school-wide level. And students who were protesting in our silent sit-in out of fear of being targets of school gun violence were also being frightened into a different kind of silence, one marked by fear of the very people who are supposed to protect us.
But Wednesday morning’s walkout at North Cobb High School was not a failure. In fact, it was enlightening. For me, it highlighted the toxic, counteractive mindsets of our administration. Through their actions, school administrators told us the problem is not with us the students but with them, the school administrators who acted as not only an obstacle but also a bully.
At best, the school’s response redirected our efforts and attention away from gun control and school safety, and instead provided an educational lesson on the importance of our constitutional right to peacefully protest.
Today, I learned our school has little respect for its students. I learned that the school considers it acceptable to push around, bully and essentially pressure its student body. I learned that our school administrators made a choice to alienate themselves from the students they are supposed to serve and protect. They made a choice to put policy before morality. They made a choice to side against us, their students, in this, a moment of history. They made a choice to not show its youth how to lead by example.
Today I learned that my school made a choice. And it did not choose me.
Erin is an aspiring journalist, photographer and activist, who, in all honesty, has had about enough. And she’s not even 17 yet.
Photo credit: Erin Davis