For 30 minutes Wednesday morning, C. Milton Wright High School students put aside the traditional “three Rs” of school — reading, writing and arithmetic — to focus on another version of the three Rs — readiness, response and recovery — as they discussed their feelings about last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“It not only gave the students a voice, but it amplified it to a whole new level,” Matt Resnik, a senior at the Bel Air-area high school and the student representative on the Harford County Board of Education, said Thursday morning.
Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan directed secondary schools throughout the county to facilitate a “learning module” for students as an alternative to the nationwide walkout Wednesday to protest gun violence and remember the 17 students and staff who died in the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Canavan wrote in a March 7 letter that HCPS could not condone students walking out of class because of safety and staffing concerns. She also warned those who left school could face unspecified discipline.
The learning module would be a way for students to discuss their feelings about the Parkland tragedy while in a safe environment, Canavan wrote.
Some Harford students did walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, however, including 50 to 60 at Havre de Grace High School and 133 students at C. Milton Wright High School, the latter confirmed by the school’s principal.
In response to an email from The Aegis Thursday asking if Canavan’s ban on walkouts had been modified, or if students had walked out of other HCPS schools other than C. Milton Wright and Havre de Grace, Jillian Lader, manager of communications for HCPS, referred to a statement, first issued Wednesday afternoon:
“Yesterday [Wednesday], students attending Harford County Public Schools participated in a classroom activity designed to serve as an alternative to the nationally endorsed walkout,” the statement read. “The activity was created to encourage students to openly interact with each other in a teacher led module regarding their personal and collective feelings pertinent to school safety and security. Based on our observations, participation in the national walkout was limited and orderly. Our students were respectful and poised this morning. We commend each of them.”
Bel Air protest
In downtown Bel Air on Wednesday afternoon, a small group of parents and students staged a brief demonstration against the HCPS walkout ban in front of the circuit courthouse on Main Street, across the street from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office headquarters.
One of the demonstrators, Karen Smoyer, a Bel Air resident and mother of two students at Patterson Mill Middle and High School, said about 40 people participated, including members of the local activist group Together We Will Harford County, students from Aberdeen, Bel Air, Edgewood, Patterson Mill High schools and some home-schooled students.
“They wouldn’t let the kids walk out without getting in trouble, so I said to my daughter, ‘You know everyone in the school kind of agrees with you anyway. So why don’t we do it after school so that you’re not missing school and we need to demonstrate in front of people who should pay attention.’”
“I understand the sheriff wants to give teachers guns and the children and everyone is against that,” said Smoyer, referring to Harford Sheriff Jeffery Gahler’s support of legislation to arm school employees. “I’m very concerned that he thinks that, because we’re not a bunch of vigilantes, we’re a government.”
“I think it’s too much to ask of teachers; I want our teachers to teach,” she said. “I want better security, and I want better gun laws and we’re not going to stop until that happens. We are strong and powerful and we are a rising voice in Harford County.”
The HCPS administration received positive feedback from the schools about the modules, Lader wrote in an email Thursday.
“Our objective for the activity was to discuss the personal impact of experience with fear and uncertainty, to identify and discuss positive ways to cope with fear and uncertainty, and to develop readiness responses that will be shared with school administrators and consequently, with the Superintendent,” Lader continued.
The modules had been scheduled for the same time, and the CMW walkout participants were instructed to return to class after the 17-minute activity ended, Principal Michael Thatcher said, when a reporter from The Aegis visited the school Thursday morning.
He said the walkout at his school happened without any reported incidents and students returned to class and to their modules after it ended.
“It was very orderly,” Thatcher said.
He said there was “100 percent participation” in the learning module. CMW has about 1,450 students, according to the school system’s website.
‘Support each other’
The principal read a message over the PA system five minutes before the walkout and the learning module started.
He said he encouraged students to remember the importance of relationships as “the building blocks of acceptance, self actualization and learning,” and to be honest in sharing their thoughts, and to remember their classmates’ different life experiences.
He made additional comments after the 30-minute module ended and also encouraged anyone who wanted to share a message but could not during the module because of time constraints, to bring it to him and he would bring it to the superintendent, Thatcher said.
He then asked the school community to join him in a moment of silence for the Parkland victims.
Thatcher showed The Aegis reporter a pile of charts and worksheets in a storage closet in his office, documents filled with students’ thoughts related to readiness, response and recovery.
He said counselors were available throughout the building for any student who might experience “extra stress” from the module.
“We had kids that had emotions that were more raw than others,” Thatcher said.
Special education staff were also on hand to give students with special needs support and their own opportunity to express themselves during the module, he said.
“Every student was respectful of each others’ opinions and their voice, and they all engaged in a meaningful conversation,” Resnik, the student school board representative, said. He had opposed students walking out.
Students take the lead
Resnik said he enjoyed Wednesday’s module, which happened during his English class. He said his teacher, Shannon Grauel, created a PowerPoint presentation around the three Rs. She put the students into groups and encouraged them to talk about their feelings and see the similarities and differences in each others’ thoughts.
“She wanted the students to be the leaders in the discussion,” Resnik said.
Resnik said students have reach out to one another and talking with people they wouldn’t usually talk with.
“It’s really a great thing to see,” Resnik said. “It’s amazing, actually.”
Thatcher, a 30-year HCPS veteran, said student volunteers are working with the local Friends R Family Foundation to put on a mental health assembly at the school.
He stressed he is not a mental health professional, but he noted that when one looks into prior school shootings, the perpetrator was often “a kid who was on the fringe, who didn’t belong somehow.”
Resnik said CMW students know they can talk with counselors or teachers if they have any issues at home or school.
“The teachers are always very supportive of the students, and if you just reach out to them they instantly take you in as one of their own,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
Aegis staff member Matt Button contributed to this report.