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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 1, 2018 9 months ago

Tragedy spurs Sarasota high schoolers to act

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Students say "enough is enough," and organize walkouts, rallies to make their points heard about school safety following the mass shooting in Parkland.
by: Cassidy Alexander Staff Writer

Something palpable changed in Sarasota County classrooms and hallways in the days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Students said they were afraid, shocked and worried. And as students in Florida and around the nation spoke up about their fears and their plans to make themselves heard, so did teens in Sarasota schools.

“I could die today,” Riverview High School senior Katy Cartlidge said she was thinking at school after 17 students and staff were killed on Feb. 14 in South Florida, when news of possible threats spread at her own school. She remembers hearing a loud noise at school she thought was a gunshot earlier in the year. 

“Being in that moment made me never want to be in that moment again,” she said.

“There’s a fear now,” Anton Kernohan said, another Riverview High senior.

“I would catch myself throughout the day thinking, like, if something did happen I would need an escape plan. What would I do?” said Riverview senior Lis Sundberg.

Students have turned that fear into a drive aimed at change. At area high schools, they’ve organized events to draw attention to the lives lost and to say they’re standing up for a safer future. The school district supports them, going so far as to announce a districtwide observance on March 14, as part of walkouts that are scheduled nationwide.

Even before walkouts were discussed, the district reacted to students’ fears. Police presence was increased. Riverview High showed students the adults on campus who could help them and what resources were available. North Port High School handed out security surveys to students. Teachers at Booker High got students talking about how they felt after news of the shooting.

One teacher at Booker High ran a drill that directed students to throw textbooks at a possible shooter, one student said.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has investigated 32 tips of possible threats to schools in the county since the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting; the Sarasota Police Department has investigated 10. None was credible, police say, but Cardinal Mooney High School closed Feb. 26 as a precaution, and Riverview High School has sent out multiple messages to parents to keep them updated on what police are investigating.

Read: Sarasota schools respond to increasing number of social media threats 

Still, some students think it’s not enough. They want to do more than improve school conditions.

“I really wonder when lawmakers will do something to protect us,” said Amanda Baxter, a senior at Booker High.

Other students are asking the same question and taking matters into their own hands.

At Booker High, a walkout is scheduled at 10 a.m. March 14. It will last 17 minutes to honor the 17 who died in the Parkland shooting, and to encourage change in how the U.S. deals with gun violence.

Steve Martinez

“We [should be] able to walk into a school without ever having to feel threatened,” said Booker High School senior Steve Martinez, who is heading up the students’ planning efforts. “We just want to let the people who are running our nation know that enough is enough.”

Booker High students are planning to write to their representatives, and the student government is donating money and supplies to Stoneman Douglas High.

A national website for the event also lists Sarasota High and Suncoast Polytechnic High as locations for walkouts.

At Riverview, students are hoping for something bigger: a walkout that culminates in speeches from students and community leaders, chanting, a rally to register students to vote and breakout sessions that allow students to talk about what’s been happening and possible solutions.

Katy Cartlidge and Anton Kernohan had the idea to organize a walkout and subsequent rally at Riverview High School.

“We want to make it harder, if not impossible, to kill us,” Kernohan said.

He and Cartlidge got the idea for a walkout shortly after the shooting, and quickly assembled a committee of 17 students — one for each of the Parkland victims.

Read: Sarasota County Schools receiving security upgrades

“I do believe our schools are doing all they can to protect us,” said senior Emma Bailey, one of the organizers. “But we’re asking for safety within our entire country. At a certain point telling us our [school] safety procedures aren’t enough.”

Acting Riverview Principal Kathy Wilks is working with the district to make sure the students can execute their plans safely, but nothing has been solidified yet. 

“The shooting impacted everybody,” she said. “But especially for their generation that has really become a topic of concern and has galvanized them as a group to want to work together to see change.”

Sarasota County Schools is supporting students’ efforts to speak out during this time.

“We want it to be a 100% student-driven conversation,” said Steve Cantees, the district’s executive director of high school education. “We want students to be empowered to feel like this event can be impactful in Sarasota County on a national stage.”

Kernohan and the students at Riverview hope that by participating in the walkouts, they can encourage national leaders to make it harder to purchase guns and impossible to purchase assault weapons.

“We know that we will eventually get there,” he said. “We aren’t playing around.”

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