On Wednesday, March 14, at 10 a.m., there will be a student-organized walkout at Wilton High School, as part of the National School Walkout campaign. As of press time there are more than 2,000 high schools taking part in the effort, which grew out of reaction following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL where 17 people were shot to death. The walkout campaign is taking place one month to the day since the Parkland school shooting to push for stricter legislation to keep students safe from gun violence–at schools, in their homes, and everywhere.

GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with the two students who are organizing the 17-minute walkout at WHS, seniors Emily Kesselman (above, left) and Julia Bonnist.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  How did the two of you get to be the organizers of the walk out?

Emily Kesselman:  I heard from various people that a student walkout was going on around the country. ‘Are you doing that walk out? March 14, or the April 20 one?’ And they were like, ‘I would do it but I don’t really know, am I going to get in trouble? Can I get expelled?

I thought, let’s have something at our school for people to know that other people can participate. I did not intend for it to be an all day thing, but I wanted to spread it around so at least the students knew that if they wanted to do it, they would know the people doing it. Then I made a Facebook Page and I registered the event with Action Network, through Woman’s March Youth Empower, because their people want to get a national, nation-wide kind of count. Even though it’s not run by them, it was also an easy way for me to be able to see who is coming.

And then Julia messaged me and she was like, ‘I’m really passionate about gun control.’

Julia Bonnist:  I’ve always been very passionate about gun control. Every time one of these shootings happen, I always think to myself, This is going to be the time that a change is made. And it never is. And I have cousins who went to school in Newtown, so this is very close to me.

When I started hearing about the school walk outs, my mom said to me, ‘You should organize this at your school.’ So I was thinking about it, and then coincidentally I got invited to Emily’s Facebook event, so I messaged her and I told her if she needed any help with it, I’d love to help out, or organize it with her, and I had some ideas that I wanted to share with her.

GMW:  What is the main message about? What is the walkout for?

Julia:  I think everyone just wants to make a statement about school safety. That it’s important that we as students, we need to feel safe at school. With all the shootings going on we just…I think everyone has their own beliefs about gun control and no matter what they are, we all unite with this one belief that we all want to feel safe and something needs to be done so that we can feel safe at school.

Emily:  And the most political [it gets] is we support common sense gun legislation. We’ve been fortunate enough in Connecticut to have that, since 2016 we’ve been really great, but now other states and federally–that’s where we need to see change and I think that’s the most political it’s getting.

It’s not partisan, it’s for whatever reasons people are walking out. If that may not be the reason but they want to show solidarity then that’s great and as a student body we’re together demonstrating our support.

Julia:  Some people are walking out because they want no guns. Some people are walking because they want more school safety.

Emily:  They want more [School Resource] Officer Ross.

Julia:  We all together are walking because we want to be safe at school. I think the administration is doing a lot and working hard to help make the school feel safe. Personally, I don’t think that the issue is how secure the school is. I think our school is secure. It could be more secure, but it’s almost as secure as it could get without invading privacy and a lot of people have problems with invading privacy and that’s why a lot of people don’t want metal detectors. People don’t want to have to be checked every time they walk into school.

I think there’s a new emphasis on if you see something say something and if you are worried about someone tell someone. If you overhear something, tell someone. And that’s really promising at school.

GMW:  Some of the adults in Wilton question who’s in charge–the students or the administration. Why was it important for you to involve the administration?

Emily:  We got the student government and administration involved, because that was just a much easier way to make sure that people didn’t get expelled. I emailed them asking, ‘Can you ensure no student gets expelled or sent to detention or gets an unexcused absent by exercising their rights of free speech, as long as they act according to the school code of conduct, and nothing goes awry?’

Julia: And I’ve spoken with [WHS principal] Dr. O’Donnell about gun control and this kind of issue with school safety, in October. We had a conversation about it, so I know that he is definitely on board with school safety–what principal wouldn’t be on board with school safety? I think we both thought that there wouldn’t be an issue with administration supporting students who want to make a statement about school safety.

GMW:  You’ve spoken with administrators and told them, ‘This is what’s happening.’ Have they told you that no one’s going to get in trouble?

Julia:  Yes.

GMW:  Dr. O’Donnell has said he personally is going to join you. Are there other teachers as well who will be walking out?

Julia:  I’ve spoken with a bunch of my teachers to ask if they were planning on participating, because we wanted to get a feel for how many people and staff were going to participate. I didn’t ask all of my teachers, but all the ones that I did ask said yes.

GMW:  And parents? Or other outside adult supporters? Are they able to be there?

Emily:  No. It’s not something they’re invited to. We’re asking that parents don’t just show up, but we appreciate their solidarity. If they’d like to wear orange that day, they are welcome to. There’s a march in D.C. on March 24 which is called ‘A March for our Lives’ organized by the Parkland teens. There’s a sister march in Hartford, and in New York City. They can donate to Everytown for Gun Safety or multiple other organizations, but we do not want them showing up to the walkout. Not that we don’t love them, we just don’t want them showing up.

Julia:  Just for safety purposes. To have other people come onto the campus, it’s one more thing for school security…

Emily:  We can’t verify that everybody’s a parent. By the time we did that, the 17 minutes are over.

GMW:  Talk about the logistics–how is it going to work?

Julia:  Basically, we’re going to walk out of school through the front entrance all together at 9:50 a.m.. And then the official walk out, I think, starts at 10 a.m., but we’re going to allow time for everyone to walk to Lilly Field, where we’re all going to assemble together. And for every minute, starting at 10 o’clock, we’re going to announce a name of a victim of the Parkland shooting, for each minute. And it will last for 17 minutes. And then at 10:17 a.m., we’re going to walk back and return to class.

We’re going to have police around the whole building–some people were concerned about everyone knowing that much of our student body is going to be assembled in this one area, about a sensitive topic. So we made sure to contact the police to make sure that everyone would be safe participating in this.

GMW:  Do you have any estimate of how many people will attend?

Emily:  Anywhere between 500 and 800 people–117 people responded via the Action Network, which we posted on Facebook last weekend. That link should be going out to students today, because we have 1,331 students, so that’s our goal, ideally. They changed the schedule for it.

GMW:  The school schedule was changed for the walkout? 

Emily:  It’s World Language Week, so they normally plan cultural events that teachers can take their students to. So they did us a huge favor, and didn’t plan anything during the event on the schedule or during that period. On the schedule, it doesn’t say ‘Walkout,’ but it says, ‘Nothing scheduled,’ so people know that they can participate. And if the teachers participate in it, but a student doesn’t want to, the students are asked to go to the cafeteria where there will be supervision.

GMW:  There are people who are choosing not to walk out. Has this led to any kind of tension in school or has there been any kind of issue?

Emily:  I don’t feel tension.

Julia:  I think everyone respects each other’s views and although we might argue over it, at the end of the day it is a controversial issue. We just have to respect each other’s views and if someone doesn’t want to walk out, I’m not going to go to the cafeteria and drag them outside. I’m going to respect them and be polite.

Emily:  I would love to hear from someone who doesn’t want to walk out and why–whether it’s they don’t feel safe walking out, if that’s the reason people don’t feel safe then I think we can recreate something maybe inside the Field House. Or if it’s something they disagree with or they simply just want to get homework done, and they hold homework over this then we respect that.

Julia:  One other factor, I know a lot of colleges have come out with statements saying that they support the applicants that are participating in these walkouts, but there have been some saying that if you participate you need to report it to your school, so maybe some people might not be walking out because they’re worried about college.

Emily:  As far as disciplinary action, we’re fortunate enough that we’re not worried about that. The ACLU released an online packet about ‘Know your rights as a student’ and how far you can take it in your state before you’re putting yourself basically at too much risk. We’re really fortunate that we don’t have to choose that.

We’re not protesting against the school. There have been people who have said that we should not have announced it and just walked out. But it’s not about us against the school.

Julia:  The main thing with the administration and getting them involved is that kids are worried about having absences and getting in trouble for walking out and leaving class, because normally if the entire school just got up and left class, there would be consequences.

GMW:  Which is part of security and keeping track of everybody, so that’s a good thing.

Emily:  Exactly. That’s why we involved the administration in the first place.

Julia:  And we want staff to have the opportunity to participate as well if they feel passionate about this like we do. Getting the administration involved helps our staff to know what’s happening and to help them participate if they want to.

GMW:  Besides the logistics and giving the okay, have administrators had any other kind of involvement in planning or orchestrating the walkout?

Emily:  No, they did give the suggestion that using the main entrance was for safety purposes and just to make sure that everyone walks out there. Originally I thought we should gather in the main lobby, that area where we meet buses, but they suggested Lilly Field. They didn’t really make any changes though. We’re going to use the speaker system at the soccer field, and they will be helping us with that, but they didn’t change anything.

GMW:  And this has been under your direction? This is all student-led?

Julia:  Yeah and it’s supposed to be. It’s us as students coming together and making a statement that we need to feel safe at school.

GMW:  Have kids been scared?

Julia:  I’m scared, personally.

Emily:  I keep thinking, there are classes where you can’t bring your cell phone to the bathroom. I’ve been saying this to teachers, I said this to my parents, but the day of the Parkland shooting we watched the news, and someone was saying that she hadn’t heard from her daughter since she was locked in a closet and texted her saying, ‘I love you, mommy. If I don’t make it, I love you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ My mom was like, ‘What?!’ We just looked at each other and our eyes welled up…what if I’m in the bathroom and no one else is in there and I don’t have my cell phone.

It’s perfectly reasonable that I have to leave my phone in the classroom. I shouldn’t have to be scared to go to the bathroom.

Julia:  I went to a movie theater last year, and there was a fire alarm, saying there’s an emergency in the building, everyone needs to exit. Everyone else around me was fine, but the first thing that came into my mind was that someone has a gun and we’re all in danger. I think it’s so sad at this point, when something like a fire alarm goes off, the first thing that comes to my mind, I was 16 years old, was that it was a shooting.

Everyone else was probably thinking, ‘Cool I get my money back and I can see a new movie another time.’ But I was thinking that I could die.

GMW:  It’s awful that this is the way your generation has to grow up.

Emily:  No one should have to feel that every morning, thinking that, anywhere, not just school, anywhere. Which is why we need to, nationwide, take safety seriously.

Julia:  I don’t think that Wilton High School is an unsafe school, I just think that right now, in the world, no matter where you go, you’re not safe. So I don’t feel safe going to school everyday. I show up to school every morning and I think, ‘I hope today isn’t the day that there’s a shooting at my school.’ That’s really sad and that’s what pushes me to try to make a difference with gun control.

Emily:  I’m not against people having guns. Responsible people have guns. I know that there are a lot of people in Wilton who have guns. I don’t personally feel the need, [but] I respect that as long as you store it safely, you educate your children saying, ‘By the way, son or daughter, I have a gun. This is a real gun, you need to take this seriously.’ And monitor your children to make sure they, especially at times like this, understand the severity of it and that they don’t know the code to your safe, because they don’t need to use the gun. Ever.

Julia:  Right.

GMW:  Do you think about it when you go to someone’s house?

Emily:  I didn’t, but now I do. Now I look around and I wonder if there’s a gun in their house. And how many of these kids know that their parents have a gun in their house?

Julia:  I don’t feel unsafe at someone’s house or walking around outside but you wonder, does anyone have a gun in their bag or in their pocket?

In driving school, they teach you that the number one weapon that people carry in their cars is a handgun.

GMW: Let’s talk about the mental health part of things. Do you think that there should be an effort to reach out to the kids that nobody knows, the kids that nobody talks to?

Julia:  I think it’s hard to reach everyone and, especially in high school, there’s always going to be kids who have a hard time, that struggle. Everyone struggles in high school. And I think with the increase in gun violence, there should be programs and efforts in place to help those kids. Not just because we think they’re gonna shoot people, but because they need help. Gun violence, with all the bad things it’s done, one silver lining is that we recognize that these kids need help. That kids are struggling and they should have the help that they need.

Emily:  I don’t wanna target anyone. I want them to get help. But just because someone has a mental illness doesn’t mean that they’re going to shoot people, and there are people who don’t have a mental illness and then shoot people because they want to shoot people. I think that’s a separate awareness we need to address. And we need to be careful about targeting people–we can’t just say, ‘Oh this person doesn’t have friends, I think that they’re gonna shoot us.’

But you could go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, you’re sitting alone, would you like to sit with me?’ Just the basic, nicest way we try to teach kids. This goes to really show why we teach kids to be nice.

GMW:  One of the things that’s come out after Parkland is the power of students’ voices, and the power of your generation, which has been incredible to see what you guys are doing, and how serious it’s being taken. What is it like for you to watch that happen? What do you take away from that?

Julia:  It’s really empowering. A lot of people think that we’re just kids, and that just because we’re young we can’t make a difference. With everything that’s happening with our generation, standing up and fighting for what we believe, it’s really empowering and, at least for me, it makes me feel like I can really make a difference. By helping organize the walkout I feel like I’m making a difference and helping to make a change to something that I’m really passionate about.

Emily:  Seeing students, they think we don’t have a voice–well, I registered to vote last week. I think 72 people or something just registered to vote [at the high school registration drive], which is not a lot, but it’s something. We have civic responsibility, that’s something that we’ve been growing up with in Wilton and around the country really and it’s amazing.

If I were a legislator and I disagree with what the kids were saying, I would be scared. I would be scared for my job security.

One reply on “The GMW Interview: WHS Student Walkout Organizers”

  1. Terrific story. Great kids! Wonderful movement. God bless and keep the students safe.

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