West Hempstead students remember Parkland shooting victims through its protest against gun violence

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As expected, hundreds of students from across Nassau County took part in Wednesday’s planned National School Walkout to remember the 17 victims of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School a month ago and to call for stricter gun controls, according to student activists and educators.

The Herald received reports of walkouts taking place at high schools from Valley Stream to Long Beach, Bellmore-Merrick, Glen Head and Oyster Bay, as well as at universities like Hofstra.

At West Hempstead High School, students took part in a lock-down drill in the hour before 10 a.m. to emphasize the importance of school safety. The building was silent throughout the exercise, said Superintendent Patricia Sullivan-Kriss. "I'm incredibly proud of the students," she said. "It was an amazing phenomenon."

After the lock-down drill, students returned to their classes to sit for 17 minutes silently to reflect or to write. A small number of students left their classes and sat in the high school's rotunda, Sullivan-Kriss said.

The superintendent noted that the high school's field is under construction, so students did not have anywhere outside of the school to gather. When asked whether students were permitted to leave the school, Sullivan-Kriss said, "It's an if that did not occur. The students participated in our plan."

“It is the vision of this high school to nurture an environment that develops responsible citizens in a global community,” West Hempstead High Interim Principal Dr. Robert Hanna wrote in a letter to parents before Wednesday. “It is important that we provide all of our students with the opportunity to analyze and think critically about the world around them. The administrative team is working with our teachers to develop a variety of ways in which we can more effectively engage all of our students in current events on a continuous basis.”

At Kennedy High School in Bellmore, dozens of students streamed onto the football field. "This tragedy serves as a wakeup call," said senior Jessica Rosen, speaking of the shooting in Parkland, Fla. "It's an impetus to start working towards a change. It's the final straw that told us that we can't sit idly by anymore."

The scene was similar at nearby Wantagh High School, where students marched out of the school carrying a yellow-and-black banner that read, "Wantagh Stands With Parkland." "I've never seen anything more beautiful in my life," said senior Samantha Walsh.

At North Shore High School in Glen Head, many students brandished signs saying they had had enough of gun violence. Senior Danielle Fosset said, “I think it’s important that our demographic and generation becomes increasingly active and involved in social issues in the current political climate, especially in regards to our lives and our safety. That’s why I participated in the walkout. We have the power to inspire change.”

The group Women’s March Youth Empower acted as a national organizer of the walkout, which took place not only in the United States, but also at schools in Europe and Australia.

The event was called simply #Enough.

It began at 10 a.m. Students walked out of their schools for precisely 17 minutes — one minute for each of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims.

According to a post on its Twitter feed, Women's March Youth Empower is seeking:

• To enact a resolution declaring gun violence a national health crisis.

• To ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

• To expand background checks on all weapons.

• To pass a federal gun violence restraining order.

• To pass an act "to demilitarize" law enforcement.

School districts are prohibited by law from advocating for political positions, so district officials said they could not condone the walkout. At the same time, many are saying they support their students.

“This is not a school-sponsored activity, but the district certainly supports our kids,” said Bellmore-Merrick Superintendent John DeTommaso. “We support kids in every way that we can, and we’re going to do that in this case. We’re going to be sure that it’s as controlled an event as possible, with as little disruption to the day as we can.”

Kennedy senior Justin Dynia said, "Every so often there comes a time when it's up to the students to rise to the occasion and be the proponents of change. This is that time."

Classmate Azaria Vargas said the walkout "is of paramount importance in showing that, as students, we have voices and can make them heard."

A number of school districts, such as the Valley Stream Central High and Lynbrook school districts, held school-sponsored memorial services in remembrance of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims. Others held assemblies. Still others allowed students to walk out, without fear of punishment. There were reports of a handful of Long Island districts that treated the walkout as a cut.

Nassau police said ahead of the walkout that security was stepped up at high schools across the county, but would offer no further details.

On its website, Women’s March Youth Empower states that the walkout came about because of “Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.”

“We need action,” the site states. “Students and allies are organizing the national school walkout to demand Congress pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and Education Commissioner Maryellen Elia, in a joint statement on Wednesday, called the walkouts a “peaceful, yet powerful display of unity and civic engagement.”

“This is a national movement; it is real, and it is being driven by our students,” Rosa and Elia said. “As educators, we often talk about ‘teachable moments.’ These young people, united in peaceful protest to demand action buy our Congress on gun violence, are turning tragedy into a teachable moment for our federal lawmakers.”

Erik Hawkins, Alexandra Brinton and Zoe Mailin contributed to this story.