Classrooms across America will be empty March 14.
No, it’s not a holiday. Rather it’s a 17-minute protest against Washington for lawmakers’ response — or lack thereof — to gun violence in schools.
The walkout comes just weeks after 17 students and teachers were killed in a mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school. And students around the country — including right here in our own neighborhood schools — are ready to send a message.
“Our students are feeling very energized by the movement across the country,” said Sarah Danzig Simon, the assistant head at Ethical Culture Fieldston, a school participating in the nationwide protest. “We’re thrilled that the students have joined with their peers across the country. We are very proud to support them.”
While the protest works for older students at high schools, institutions with younger children — like P.S. 81 on Riverdale Avenue — are not allowed to let their little ones outside the building during school hours. That, however, hasn’t stop principal Anna Kirrane from taking her own form of action. Throughout the year, P.S. 81 performs drills from the classroom all the way to the school bus in case someone walks onto campus with a weapon.
“I think the drills are very necessary and we need to be proactive because I am responsible for 730-plus children, and it is my duty and responsibility that we protect our children,” Kirrane said.
Kirrane meets with her staff, security and parents nearly every week, sometimes even planning them in the evenings to accommodate work schedules. Legally schools are required to do four drills a year, but Kirrane makes an effort to do even more.
Drills for school shootings work almost like a fire drill. Once a drill is announced through the public address system, students in the halls or bathrooms are pulled into the nearest classroom. Then everyone huddles into a corner just out of view of the door.
In the case of emergencies like this, teachers are equipped with an emergency bag that includes things children might need, like EpiPens and medicine.
“Then the building response team leader comes to inspect the lockdown, and we always try to figure out what we can do better every time,” Kirrane said.
These drills can be somewhat traumatic for the children, Kirrane admits, but still recognizes how important they are.
“You’re on edge with all these things happening,” Kirrane said. “I think it’s very sad that we are living in an age where our children are becoming more vulnerable, and it is unfortunate.”
At P.S. 24 the level of concern is no different.
“We are reviewing systems and protocol. Safety is our main concern,” principal Steven Schwartz said.
The school has even gone as far as raising money for new high-level radios the faculty and administration can use to communicate with the New York Police Department “within a blink of an eye,” Schwartz said.
Preparing for school shootings is serious, and during the process, Schwartz has observed how mature the students have been in their response.
“It’s amazing how children are,” Schwartz said. “They understand it and take it very seriously, and often when we have drills they understand the purpose behind it. It’s like preparing for a test.”
For safety purposes, both P.S. 24 and P.S. 81 could not disclose too much information about their security procedures, but both schools have put in time and dialogue into erecting stronger barriers between gun violence and their students. Like Kirrane, Schwartz also has had open conversations with parents and security.
Kirrane reviews all of the safety procedures in place at the school with parents, outlining what would happen in the event children are moved to another site because of a shooting. There are even signs in their emergency bags to indicate when a child is unaccounted for.
Doors are always locked at both schools, except for the main door. And when that door is open, a security guard is present.
“It’s unfortunate that something like this had to happen to remind us of what our first job is,” Schwartz said. “We are educators, but first and foremost, we protect our children.”