Watertown High School students, staff discuss March 14 walkout

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WATERTOWN — Watertown High School staff and students met Thursday afternoon in their library to continue their dialogue about school safety.

Members of the student government and National Honor Society chapter had met with administrators March 1 to discuss the topic as well, specifically their feelings surrounding the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.

Thursday’s meeting focused on how students wanted to participate in the school walkout day Wednesday as thousands of their peers across the country plan to do.

High School Principal Leslie Atkinson said there was “broad concern” about the idea of a mass walkout, both because of the safety risk and the disruption to the school day it would cause.

Some students initially expressed concern that not being able to express themselves publicly would diminish the impact of their statement.

“We just want this, whatever we do, to be meaningful,” said senior Elissa Prieto.

Watertown City School District Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr told the students that they had “already had a far bigger impact than you realize.” She shared some details of the discussions she had with state officials and city Police Chief Charles P. “Chip” Donoghue, including State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie’s call for greater school security and student mental health services.

Connor McDowell, a senior, emphasized that he and his classmates “would also like to have a student-led discussion, maybe an assembly, about gun safety and mental health” on Wednesday.

Elissa, and fellow senior Katie Peck, agreed that there should be an alternate, staff-backed activity, like the assembly, so students who are uncomfortable leaving the building can still participate.

Another senior, Hannah Isham, also suggested an alternative to the walkout.

“Since not everyone agrees with the walkout, I think we can have a better connection as a student body if we have some kind of activity inside.”

Katie Peck and Elissa Prieto, along with guidance counselor Julie Houghmaster, suggested using the planned 17-minute moment of silence to instead work on connecting the student population.

“So much of this school violence comes at the hands of students who feel disengaged and alienated from their peers,” Ms. Houghmaster said. “Maybe we could spend those 17 minutes writing positive messages for others?”

Principal Atkinson suggested using a period in the school day to work on relationship-building, and staff and students agreed that there should be discussions, about mental health, leading up to Wednesday’s event.

Students and staff suggested having a banner available for everyone to sign and send Wednesday to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Hannah Isham’s cousins attend Stoneman Douglas High School, and Hannah went to Parkland after the shooting.

“What stuck out to me the most while I was there was this kind of ‘unofficial’ memorial that had been set up,” Hannah said. “If we signed and sent a banner, it would be something they could always have.”

Thursday’s meeting between students and staff lasted about an hour and a half, and everyone present seemed excited about sending the banner to Parkland. The students felt it would be simple and allow everyone to participate in remembering the victims.

Principal Atkinson and Superintendent LaBarr said they intended to work on long-term administrative solutions to student mental health and safety-related concerns like parent guides to recognizing mental health struggles in children.

Mrs. Atkinson said that “our students are so passionate, we owe it to them to support them. It’s our job to guide them into a productive use of this passion.”

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