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FAIR HAVEN: WALKOUTS GET DETENTION

knollwood-1-500x375-2426935Fair Haven Superintendent Sean McNeil, seen below at a January event, expressed pride in Knollwood students who walked out, but told them there had to be consequences. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

sean-mcneil-012418-220x165-3187746Seventy-two Fair Haven middle school students were ordered to report for detention after participating in a walkout Wednesday to mark the one-month anniversary of a mass school shooting in Florida.

Meanwhile, just half a mile away, hundreds of Red Bank Regional High students observed the nationwide walkout without penalty. But the fact that they were sequestered within the confines of the school stadium, and surrounded by police, irked at least one student.

• Fair Haven Superintendent Sean McNeil said 72 Knollwood students walked out of class at 10 a.m. and assembled quietly in the front yard on Hance Road in memory of 14 students and three adults killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14. Similar walkouts involving tens of thousands of students were held across the United States, according to news reports.

Borough police were present, McNeil said, “not to strongarm or deter, but for safety,” and maintained “a passive role” through the unsanctioned walkout, which he said was largely driven by sixth-graders.

“We didn’t provide any proactive direction to students,” McNeil said. As public employees, school administrators and teachers “are not supposed to take a stance on any political issue,” and the protest was deemed political because of its aim of influencing legislators to enact laws that restrict firearms access, he said.

At the conclusion of the 17-minute event, McNeil said he directed the participating students into a classroom, where he engaged them in a brief “conversation.”

He said he wanted the students to understand that while he was proud of them, walking out of class without authorization “comes with consequences.” The students were given a 38-minute before-school detention, scheduled to be fulfilled Thursday.

Teachers had been advised not to prevent students from walking out, but to inform them that an unexcused absence came with potential consequences, McNeil said. But the parent of a Knollwood student said her child, who wanted to walk out, had been told by a teacher that she shouldn’t.

McNeil said he was unaware of a teacher having refused to allow a student to leave a classroom. “That would not fly in the face of the guidance I issued,” he said.

At the borough’s K-3 Sickles School, two parents briefly signed their children out of class as a part of the walkout, McNeil said. Those absences were excused, “just as if a child were being taken to a dentist’s appointment,” he said.

• At Red Bank Regional, in Little Silver, “well into the hundreds” of students walked out at 10 a.m., and were directed to the stadium in the interior of the school campus, said Superintendent Louis Moore.

The location of the protest, away from public roads, and the police presence were deemed necessary “so that we were able to keep students safe,” Moore said. “It was not to monitor the students but to protect them.” Borough police had advised that allowing students to gather along a street at a specified time would have made them “vulnerable,” he said, without elaboration.

Police remained on the perimeter of the stadium and “kept an appropriate distance” while students marched on the track, some carrying signs, for 17 minutes, Moore said.

Ninth-grader Alexandra Lewis, however, said she and other students saw it differently.

On leaving the building, “we were greeted with police officers wearing bullet-proof vests, armed with large guns and menacing faces,” she wrote in a statement to redbankgreen. “At first, we thought, maybe this is to protect us, but after a few more minutes of marching, we realized, their main goal wasn’t to protect us, but to keep us locked in.

“Though I do agree that it is important to have police to protect us, they were dressed for more than just protection, they were dressed to intimidate,” the Red Bank resident wrote.

From her statement:

When the leaders of the civil rights movement marched, they made sure they were heard, and seen. They made sure their words would effect change. We were silenced. We aren’t taught to protest and stand up for our rights and what we need. We were taught to sit down, and be silent. We were taught to never to go to the bathroom without a pass, signed from our teachers. We were taught to raise our hands to speak. We were taught to follow the rules religiously and that we should be ashamed if they are broken. But what change was ever made by following rules? It’s the rules that need to be changed.

Moore told redbankgreen he had not heard complaints about the management of the walkout.

“The student leaders who organized it were very cooperative and understood the administration’s perspective” about safety, he said.

Moore, who penned a pro-gun-control essay published by redbankgreen on Wednesday, said he was “really, really proud of the way the students conducted themselves,” and that there would be no adverse consequences for their participation in the walkout.

• At the Red Bank Middle School, eighth-graders gathered in the auditorium for a planned “walk-in” event that “included a silent memorial for each victim” of the Parkland attack, said Superintendent Jared Rumage. He said students and teachers had collaborated in planning the event.

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