Prayers, silence and demonstrations: A day of National Student Walk Out events in the area

Students at Middletown High School participated in events Wednesday, March 14 as part of National Walk Out efforts to commemorate the deaths of 17 students who died from gunfire at a Parkland, Fla. high school. Students filled the Wade E. Miller Arena and 17 students read biographies of those killed in the Parkland school shooting. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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Students at Middletown High School participated in events Wednesday, March 14 as part of National Walk Out efforts to commemorate the deaths of 17 students who died from gunfire at a Parkland, Fla. high school. Students filled the Wade E. Miller Arena and 17 students read biographies of those killed in the Parkland school shooting. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The sports arena at Middletown High School was packed with more than 1,200 students Wednesday morning, but it had never been this quiet.

On the court were 17 students, each holding an enlarged photo of one of the 17 shooting victims killed last month at a Parkland, Fla. high school massacre that still shakes the nation.

Each took turns reading short bios on the slain students and staffers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The Middletown students wanted to create and conduct a ceremony as part of the National Walkout event held nationwide Wednesday morning at more 3,000 schools.

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After describing each victim, the Middletown students told the crowd “never again” and then sat on the court. At the end of the ceremony they all laid down, symbolizing the fallen 17.

The ceremony – along with those at other schools - doubled as a protest against gun violence and a call for making schools safer.

“There is a lot of energy out there to make change and I think there is also energy to mourn for our brothers and sisters in Parkland,” said Middletown Senior Class President Zach Banks, who lead the ceremony.

“I think people are uniquely moved by this shooting to make action and change in their communities,” said Banks, who also praised school officials for letting students handle almost all aspects of the ceremony, which lasted about half hour.

Middletown High School Principal Carmela Cotter said that was the way it should be.

“It was all them (students). They planned this and they came up with how they wanted to honor the students that lost their lives so tragically,” said Cotter.

Other events held across Butler and Warren counties went smoothly, said school officials.

The walkout ceremonies took different forms, including actual outside the school demonstrations, but many – like at Fairfield High School – were held inside. Students were asked to file into the Fairfield’s large gym. On the basketball court were 17 pairs of sneakers representing each of the shooting victims.

Student leaders spoke. At the end, there was a minute of silence to honor the Florida victims.

“We could not be more proud of our students,” said Gina Gentry-Fletcher, spokeswoman for the 10,000-student district.

At Warren County’s largest school system, Mason High School students walked into a gym – some with arms locked in solidarity – to hear speakers and conduct silent prayers for the victims.

“Students took a moment of silence to honor the victims, heard from a classmate who attended Sandy Hook Elementary at the time of the Newtown tragedy, posted post-its about why they walk, and linked arms together,” said Tracey Carson, spokeswoman for the 11,000-student district.

“As a district, we had extra law enforcement presence at all of our schools today, and were able to accommodate the students’ actions safely,” said Carson.

At Butler County’s largest school system, students at Lakota East and Lakota West high schools worked with school administrators on various projects including lobbying local legislators for more gun control, raising money for the victims’ families through bake sales and urging classmates to reach out to students who they don’t know.

Suzanna Davis, the Lakota East principal, said “today students gathered to remember those lost at Stoneman Douglas while showing support for the families and community. In addition, they took the opportunity to challenge each other to spread kindness as a way to support each other.”

Monroe High School saw students gather around the campus flag pole.

About 250 students participated, said Assistant Principal Tom Prohaska, in “support of school safety and to pay respects to those who lost their lives on February 14th. Students remained silent for 17 minutes and immediately returned to their classes afterwards. All students were back in class by 10:25 a.m.”

Private schools participated too. At Middletown’s Fenwick High School, “hundreds of students walked out into the school’s courtyard in solidarity,” said Natalie Hansman, spokeswoman for the Catholic school.

“Three students prepared original prayers to voice their support for the movement and to honor the victims in Parkland. Students named and spoke shortly about each victim while lighting a candle in their honor for all 17 victims. At the end of the vigil, students were invited to sign a poster in honor of the Walkout,” Hansman said.

Fenwick Principal Blane Collison said students “came to me with a well thought out, passion-driven plan for our school to be involved in the Walkout crusade. Prayer and awareness were the main focus for the project, therefore, our Walkout included a prayer service for all students and faculty and staff to participate in and honor the lives of those lost and to acknowledge the impact of gun violence in our communities.”

Middletown High School Principal Carmela Cotter said after students had quietly filed out of the arena, “I could bust. I’m so proud of them. They really feel deeply the loss that happens in these (shooting) events. They made it a real situation for the other students to see and every came together – so silent during all this - and it was so honoring,” she said.