Organizers focused on remembrance, putting politics aside at this time

The names of the 17 students and staff members killed in the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida were read by students throughout Ontario County Wednesday.

The focus of various demonstrations taking place as part of a National School Walkout was on remembrance, solidarity, advocacating for safer schools and promoting acts of kindness.

Hundreds of Candandaigua Academy students filled both levels of the central atrium where Jackson Brague, a sophomore class officer, read off the names one by one, followed by a moment of silence for each.

The school's buzzer sounded and another name was read — each with some biographical information, personalizing their memories.

Superintendent Jamie Farr said about 600 to 700 kids — half the student body at the academy — participated. They all stood silently for the duration, some with heads bowed.

“It's emotional,” Farr said afterward. “You hear people talk about the youth today being troubled or in a bad place. I think that today was a display that couldn't be further from the truth. We have beautiful kids, thoughtful kids and they're going to be wonderful future leaders. I have no doubt.”

Farr said the high school students designed the day themselves with help from Principal Vern Tenney, whom he said facilitated the conversation and helped the kids plan the event in connection with the #ENOUGH National School Walkout organized by Women's March Youth Empower.

Era Gjonbalaj, a senior, said she brought up the Women's March walkout at a meeting called a couple of weeks ago by Tenney after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

She said about 30 kids attended and a long discussion ensued.

“We decided we did want to participate, but it wasn't going to be political, so that we could just take advantage of it to honor the students and staff members who lost their lives,” Gjonbalaj said.

“We altered it in a way that we could remain respectful, but also getting our point across that we just want to stay safe in school,” said freshman Kennedy Knopf. “No parent should have to worry about if their child's going to come home.”

Gjonbalaj said school safety was a topic they felt everybody could agree on, regardless of their stance on gun restrictions, a topic for another day.

Both said they feel strongly about and support the Second Amendment, but also believe some restrictions are needed to keep lethal weapons — particularly automatic weapons — out of the hands of those who would harm others.

At the middle school, Principal John Arthur and students focused on 17 ways to make society better as part of their "What is Your 17?" campaign.

Many districts — like Canandaigua and the Victor Central School District — had been issuing letters to parents in the previous weeks to keep them updated on developing plans.

Victor Senior High School Principal Yvonne O'Shea posted a newsletter update Friday that the administrative team met several times to talk to students about their goals for event.

“As I mentioned previously, this will be a student-led event, and our goals as educators will be to ensure their safety,” she wrote. “Victor students continue to have an interest in supporting the students at Marjory Stoneman Doughlas High School and organizing a meaningful event. They are also concerned about school safety and want to encourage young people to be active citizens in our democracy.”

After a voluntary remembrance and reflection, student leaders were encouraged to consider ways to positively impact their school community, and given an opportunity after school to discuss the various viewpoints surrounding school violence.

Victor Junior High School Principal Brian Gee issued an email to families shortly after 3 p.m. notifying them some students joined a “well supervised student-led gathering,” voluntarily joining others in the cafeteria for a moment of silence for each victim, after which they could share ideas, via a suggestion box, on how to make a safer school community.

“In the weeks to follow, student organizers will be reviewing the suggestions shared throughout today,” Gee wrote. “I continue to be impressed with our students’ abilities to meet our expectations of showing respect for others, themselves, and our school community. Even within a unique setting, our students showed what it means to be a respectful upstander within VJH.”

Red Jacket middle and high school students participated in a variety of events, with the younger students given an opportunity to sign a banner to commit to doing their part in keeping their school safe by saying something if they see something.

They also observed a moment of silence and particpated in a “What's Your 17?” campaign to promote positive change and build relationships in their school.

At the high school, 17 students read a brief biography — one for each of the 17 victims, and later signed a banner in support of Parkland, Florida.

“We would like to thank our student leaders for their ideas and thoughtful planning,” says a joint statement issued by high school Principal Mark Bracy and middle school Principal Karen Hall.

Students at Geneva High School walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. and proceeded to the auditorium in silence, according to district Superintendent Trina Newton. After their silent march, the names of the 17 victims were read and students took a few more moments of silence before signing a poster and filling out Post-it notes with their reasons for participating in the walkout, organized by juniors Morgan Wright and Kate Equinozzi.

Newton said the notes will be mailed to Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Our students did an incredible job,” she said. “We're very proud of them for organizing a smooth and successful event.”

Midlakes required parents' permisson to participate in their 17-minute voluntary remembrance.

“They basically asked for a 17-minute moment of silence to just reflect upon and remember those victims and put attention on the importance of safe schools,” said Superintendent Matt Sickles. “We're just proud of our students and happy to support them as they take time to remember the victims of the tragedy.”

At Honeoye Central School District, 17 student representatives seated in a row came forward one at a time to read a name and age of each victim.

After a moment of reflection with their peers, they had the option of visiting one of three stations: The Kindness Pledge, where they could sign a banner imaging a world where they look out for each other in the kind of world they want to live in; Contact Legislative Representatives, where they were given the names of their state representatives as an avenue for them to get their voices heard; and Voter Registration, where eligible students were given forms and information on how to register to vote.

“In the 10 years I have been in Honeoye, this morning's gathering in the gym is among the most profound and moving moments that I have witnessed,” said Superintendent David Bills. “It is humbling to know the strong feelings and high level of appropriate expression our students constructed for everyone in our school community. The adults were equally moved, impressed with the students and their leadership, and joined them arm in arm. There is great pride for kids in Honeoye.”

Multiple activites were also planned at Naples High School, where students have been working with Principal Elizabeth Ashton and district Superintendent Matt Frahm to find a meaningful way to honor the memory of the Parkland victims.

Those who chose to could participate in a 17-second moment of silence during the morning announcements at the high school, wear silver and burgundy-colored clothing — the school colors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — put handprints on a banner reading “Never Again,” offer safety comments on Naples green and white hearts, or have a 17-minute silent walk. Those 18 and older had an opportunity to register to vote.

Frahm said the focus was to provide a safe and non-coercive environment in which students could freely express themselves and demonstrate caring for others.

“In each of our conversations, we have both been proud, as well as impressed, with the maturity and thoughtfulness of our learners,” Frahm wrote, referring to himself and Ashton. “We are proud of the respectful way our students have prepared for March 14 and we support their desire to engage in meaningful conversation at such a difficult point in time.”

Naples and the Gorham-Middlesex (Marcus Whitman) Central School District also involved their school resource officers, as did Canandaigua and some other schools.

Marcus Whitman Superintendent Jeramy Clingerman extended thanks to the SRO, Ontario County Sheriff's Offce and state police for their support during this time.

His students, working with faculty and staff, devised activites classmates could voluntarily chose from including walking the bus loop for 17 minutes while Principal Jennifer Taft read a few sentences about each of the victims, participate in a letter-writing campaign to state representatives, or watch student presentations on pop culture and violence, and gun regulations.

There was also a “What is Your 17?” for students to plan future positive actions everyone can take part in related to such topics as kindness, relationships and remembrance.

(Check back for a conversation with Canandaigua Academy Principal Vern Tenney and some students, also available in the Friday print edition)