School

Here’s What It Was Like at a Student Walkout in Relatively Gun-Friendly New Hampshire

Students at Concord High School gather outside their school for a demonstration in remembrance of the Parkland shooting victims on Wednesday in New Hampshire.
Students at Concord High School gather outside their school for a demonstration in remembrance of the Parkland shooting victims on Wednesday in New Hampshire.
Ruth Graham

CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE—Students from thousands of schools across the country walked out of their classrooms on Wednesday morning to protest gun violence on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In New Hampshire, about 1,000 students gathered in front of Concord High School for 17 minutes of silence, one minute for each of the victims in Florida.

Wednesday’s walkout almost didn’t happen on schedule. Tuesday had been a snow day, and other districts had canceled classes on Wednesday, too. (A walkout and “day of action” at nearby ConVal Regional High School, for example, was postponed until Thursday.) In Concord, school started two hours late on Wednesday because of the weather. Some students were just arriving for the day even as others started to congregate for the walkout. Laila Ruffin, the senior class vice president, was stationed behind a table piled with 2,000 orange grosgrain ribbons that organizers were passing out to any students and teachers who wanted them.

As the snow continued to fall, students began filling the stairs in front of the old part of the school, a columned building covered in vines. In the front row, 17 people—mostly students and a few teachers—each held a sign with one Parkland victim’s name. At exactly 10 a.m., the first student read the first name, then laid a single red tulip on a stone banister. The others followed, one each minute. “Peter Wang, 15.” “Carmen Schentrup, 16.” “Alyssa Alhadeff, 14.” Other than the squeaking of the flagpole, the scene was absolutely silent for 17 minutes.

Gun policy is a particularly loaded conversation in New Hampshire, with its robust hunting culture and large rural population. Just last year, the state made it legal to carry a concealed, loaded gun in public without a license. Meanwhile, gun violence does not loom large here as a matter of local concern: The state had the 11th-lowest number of gun deaths per capita in 2015, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. A variety of recent efforts to pass gun-control legislation, including a ban on bump stocks, have failed to gain ground in the state legislature. Just last weekend, gun-toting activists gathered at the State House—a mile from the high school—for a “Second Amendment rally” hosted by the Women’s Defense League.

Student-organizers had taken pains to call Wednesday’s event a commemoration rather than a protest. They solicited input via an all-school email survey and produced a video and discussion guide for the student body explaining their mission in advance. There were few signs in the crowd, other than a large “#NeverAgain” banner printed by the organizers. “We really wanted to make the event as inclusive as possible,” said senior Jonathan Weinberg, one of the organizers. “We can’t make it nonpolitical,” explained senior Sophie Johnson, another organizer and a self-described activist who spoke at the Women’s March in Concord last year. “But people from all sides of the political spectrum can have a place here today.” Ruffin said that organizers had gotten some negative feedback to the anonymous Google survey they sent to the student body as they planned the event. (“This isn’t the right way to do this,” she recalled that someone had written.) But the crowd assembling outside was uniformly somber and respectful. Presumably those who didn’t like the idea had opted to stay inside.

The group has other, more explicitly political actions planned for the near future.
A new organization called the New Hampshire Social Justice League, which now serves as central organizing body for students working on gun violence issues, is planning a rally at the state capitol on March 24 in conjunction with the March for Our Lives movement. And on April 20, they will participate in another national school walkout, this one to mark the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, now just the 12th-deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

“This is student-led, and it’s wonderful,” Concord High Principal Tom Sica said as students began to assemble in front of the school. “It’s exactly what we are asking for when we look at our graduates.” Student-organizers had approached him early about their plans—“not really to get permission, because it’s civil disobedience,” Weinberg clarified. But they wanted to understand the administration’s perspective and whether there would be consequences for students who decided to walk out, especially in the days before many colleges had set a precedent by making clear they would not punish students for participating. At Concord, the school administration decided to support the students’ plans, though they also accommodated anyone who chose not to participate. The school atmosphere has been occasionally tense since the Parkland shooting. Police investigated two students connected to a Snapchat threat made against the school in late February. Other New Hampshire communities have dealt with similar issues, with some schools closing temporarily while police investigated incidents, including a threat scratched into a cafeteria table.

Supporters of the students’ demonstration gather on the street outside the high school.
Supporters gather outside the high school.
Ruth Graham

Downhill from the school on Wednesday, several dozen adults from the Concord community lined up just off school property. “This is about supporting the students in our community,” said Jed Rardin, co-pastor of Concord’s South Congregational Church who was there with a small group of church members and a sign reading “#ENOUGH.” “It’s about supporting their leadership.” (Disclosure: I am a member of Rardin’s church.)

When the 17 minutes were up, students hustled quickly back inside to class. Kristina Peare, who teaches math and special ed, stayed outside, helping to corral stragglers and chatting with other teachers. She had offered her classroom as a meeting place for the student-organizers and provided support as they made plans, but she emphasized that it had been their vision from start to finish. Asked how she felt the event had gone, she looked away for moment to compose herself. “I’m proud of them,” she said after a minute. “I’ve been teaching since 1992, and it just keeps happening. Now kids are standing up and saying enough is enough.”