Tied to Parkland by geography, students choose heart as symbol of their call to action
FORT LAUDERDALE | They turned their fear into prayer and their anger into action.
One month after the deaths of 14 of their peers — and three teachers — at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, students in schools throughout the Miami Archdiocese joined thousands of others in a nationwide walkout to protest gun violence — and remember the victims.
Most of the archdiocesan walkouts began at 10 a.m. March 14 and lasted for 17 minutes — one minute in remembrance of each victim. None of the walkouts took the students off-campus and all were done with administrators’ approval — even encouragement.
“Administrators gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to do in the walkout,” explained Ryan Keleher, a senior at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale.
By location and connections, Gibbons is the Catholic high school closest to Stoneman Douglas. Many Gibbons students live in Coral Springs and Parkland. The two schools compete in sports such as lacrosse. One Gibbons graduate teaches at Stoneman Douglas. And some of Gibbons’ 1,200 students personally knew some of those killed or wounded in the Valentine’s Day rampage.
Stella St. Georges, a senior and one of the organizers of the walkout, said two of her friends are still hospitalized after being wounded in the shooting. She said another student knew five of those killed, and was close to two of them.
Gibbons held a schoolwide prayer service the day after the shooting. But Principal Paul Ott sensed that the students needed more. “The proximity to Stoneman Douglas makes it real for our kids,” he said. “We have to allow the kids who feel strongly to express their beliefs.”
So administrators let the students take charge. They created posters and signs, even stickers. They wrote out what they would do and say. The only rule was they couldn’t leave the campus, and they had to be back in class 30 minutes after the bell rang at 10 a.m.
Also, no one was forced to participate. Eight classrooms were designated as study halls for students who opted out. Teachers were assigned to watch the students either in the classrooms or on the football field, where the walkout took place.
After discussions in their senior leadership, theology and government classes, the student organizers opted to avoid divisive political arguments. They chose a heart as their symbol.
“The heart stands for love and that’s what we should be showing to our brothers and sisters every day,” said Stella. “Whether you support guns or not, 17 people died. And they didn’t have to die.”
Some students did hold up signs urging bans on assault weapons, but the walkout “was against violence in general,” said Ryan.
“Some students that were here, they aren’t advocating gun control,” said another organizer, senior Megan Gidlow. “They did come out of respect and to show support.”
After walking on the track surrounding the football field, the students filled in a heart-shaped outline on the 50-yard line. In the middle, several held up gray squares with big red numbers, 1 and 7, and the names of the victims written in script.
As they stood, freshman Adriana Carneiro read what she wrote over the loudspeaker: “This tragedy hurt. Usually we brush it off because it isn’t close to us. This hit home. Most of us knew some of the beautiful angels that lost their lives and some of us knew some friends that were there but they were thankfully safe. There is only so many words I can say to help you, but I cannot stop the pain that you still feel. We need to stand up for these beautiful Eagles that are now gone. They didn’t deserve this so we will be the bigger ones here and make a stand. We will make changes together. We stand together as one, all schools are together as one.”
Megan then read these words, turning the walkout into a “walk up” moment. “Today, let’s encourage students to walk up. Walk up to the kid who sits along at lunch and invite them to sit with you. Walk up to the kid who sits quietly in the corner, smile and say hi. Walk up to the kid who may be disruptive in class and ask them how they’re doing. Walk up to teachers and school staff and say thank you. Walk up to someone who has different views than you and get to know them. Walk up to 14 students and three teachers and say something kind.”
The walkout ended with 17 seconds of silence.
“We wanted today to be not about politics but about remembrance,” said another organizer, senior Marguerite Farrell.
But there was no doubt this generation had found its voice. “If you want change, change isn’t overnight. But if you want change, that’s something you can do right now,” Megan said of the exhortation to “walk up” to others.
“It took 18 school shootings for something to be done,” said another organizer, senior Gabe Gibson. He added, with a hint of pride, that Florida students are leading the way. “We don’t stop until there’s change.”
“As kids, you always think that you don’t have a voice,” said Stella. “But come to find out, one day the adults will pass and who will take over? We’re the future.”