You could hear a pin drop this morning in the Freedom Gymnasium at Jefferson Township High School. The hundreds of students who filled the bleachers were immersed in the words of their peers, who were offering tribute to the 17 souls massacred exactly one month ago in Parkland, Fla.

The township’s high school was one of thousands across the U.S. that opted to participate in the National School Walkout, a time set aside to remember those who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and to protest gun violence.

The vast majority of Jefferson’s high school students filed into the gym at 10:00 am. A huge poster with the words “We Stand With You” hung on one of the walls waiting for student signatures and comments. Once complete with signatures, the poster will be sent to Stoneman Douglas in a show of support for the school’s massacre survivors.

Poster in support of Parkland survivors. (Photo: Maria Weiskott)

When asked by The Jefferson Chronicle why she opted to attend the commemorative event, a student said she was interested in hearing what would be said.

Awareness

She added that she was aware of the events leading up to the National School Walkout and understood why Jefferson students were participating in the Walk Out, if only to the school gymnasium. “It’s been all over the internet,” she told The Chronicle, adding that she thought it was a good idea for the high school to participate.

Upwards of 75 percent, at minimum, of the 1,000-plus students at JTHS attended the event, which was not mandatory. Students who did not want to attend the presentation stayed in their classrooms with their teachers. All students were given the choice said school principal Dr. Timothy Plotts.

The gymnasium itself was well supervised by four members of the local police department, including the police chief, as well as Dr. Plotts and several faculty members.

Dr. Plotts and Police Chief Craig. (Photo: Maria Weiskott)

Remembrance and Call to Action

Speeches, written and delivered by three student leaders, devoted time to remembering the 17 people lost – 14 students and three faculty members of Stoneman Douglas – with each name being mentioned individually. The recitation was followed by a moment of silence in observance of the loss.

The remarks, which also addressed gun violence as well as calls to action for full participation in the democratic process by voting, were presented by Kalen Luciano, Peyton Riegel and Cara Langner. The program also included a musical tribute by trumpeter Ryan Schmidt.

Following the program, Dr. Plotts told The Chronicle that he was “extremely proud of the program. I’m very, very proud of the students,” he said enthusiastically. The program was just what “we hoped. The students rolled it out, it was student centered and focused on school safety. It was also a call to action,” he added.

“They did an excellent job,” Dr. Plotts enthused, adding that the program was meant to be totally student centered. Although the faculty and administration helped with guidance, the faculty did not want to participate in the comments. “We wanted it to be student centered. I’m very, very proud of the students” he repeated.

High School Principal Dr. Timothy Plotts discusses successful event with student leaders. (Photo: Maria Weiskott)

As for the young woman who we spoke to at the start of the event, she told The Chronicle that she was inspired by her peers. Since she is about to turn 18 years of age, she said she will now likely register to vote.

Win/win.

Student Speeches

The following is a video of speeches given during the event from three Jefferson Township high school students, with the text of their speeches in order below the video. (Editor’s Note: The faces of students were not shown in the video at the request of school administration. Speech texts below are unedited.)

Video by Maria Weiskott for The Jefferson Chronicle

Cara Langner’s Speech

Hello fellow peers, and faculty members and thank you for joining us in our movement for change. It is encouraging and inspirational when I see our school coming together and just proves the power we have even though as teenagers we don’t always feel that we do. Even though on everything you read online about this movement and how it is supposed to be 17 minutes of silence we believe that this is an issue that should be talked and not kept quiet, so that is what we are going to do here today.

February 14th 2018, Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, another school shooting added to the list of one too many. There were 17 fatalities. But they are more than just fatalities. These are people. They had parents waiting for them to come home or children waiting for their parents, friends waiting for phone calls or texts and bright futures taken away by a tragedy.

17 people lost their lives. And although nothing we do can bring them back we can keep them alive in our memories and use this tragedy as a catalyst for change. I am going to share with you the names of the victims and the amazing people and bright futures we lost because of this tragedy.

● Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, a soccer player for Parkland Travel Soccer Team.

● Scott Beigel, 35, a geography teacher who was killed while ushering students into his classroom for safety when the shooting first broke out.

● Martin Duque Anguiano, 14. A beloved brother lost by Miguel Duque.

● Nicholas Dworet, 17, a senior recruited to the University of Indianapolis’ for their swim team would have been an incoming freshman this fall.

● Aaron Feis, 37, an assistant football coach who was killed after throwing himself in front of students to protect them from oncoming bullets.

● Jaime Guttenberg, 14. A beloved daughter lost too soon.

● Chris Hixon, 49, the school’s athletic director, described as an awesome husband, father, and American.

● Luke Hoyer, 15. He was known for his smile and laugh being contagious.

● Cara Loughran, 14, danced at the Drake School of Irish Dance.

● Gina Montalto, 14, a member of the winter guard on the school’s marching band.

● Joaquin Oliver, 17, born in Venezuela, moved to the United States when he was 3 and became a naturalized citizen last year.

● Alaina Petty, 14, was a vibrant and determined individual who had helped volunteer after Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September and loved to serve others any way she could.

● Meadow Pollack, 18, had been accepted at Lynn University and intended starting school in this coming Fall.

● Helena Ramsay, 17, was known as a smart and kind-hearted girl.

● Alex Schachter, 14, was heavily involved in the school marching band and orchestra.

● Carmen Schentrup, 16, was a National Merit Scholar semifinalist.

● Peter Wang, 15, a member of the junior ROTC program, and was shot holding a door open to help fellow classmates get to safety.

We will now have a brief moment of silence followed by Peyton speaking to you as well.

We thank you all for being here and listening to what we had to say. As you walk out of here you will notice a banner we have that states “_____________” and you are encouraged to sign your name and we will be shipping it to Parkland Florida to show our support. It will also be in the cafeteria during all lunches today. Thank you and you are dismissed.

Peyton Riegel’s Speech

Fear is a very powerful and natural human emotion. It is normal to have rational fears such as spiders and heights, and maybe even some irrational fears like elevators and bridges. However it is how a person handles their fears that will determine if they are able to grow and prosper as an individual. When we as a species succumb to things that frighten us we are digressing into a less evolved state of cowardice and shame.

Rather than retreat from what makes us fearful we must as a nation and a school band together and unite to shine the light on even the darkest of our fears in order to alter society’s expectations of our current perpetual cycle. Due to the recent school shooting in Parkland Florida we have allowed these fears to consume us once again while we take little action to prevent these catastrophes from reoccurring. The time to turn the night light on is over but rather flood every public school, every casino, every movie theater, and every home with the bravery and courage to illuminate the nation with the knowledge needed to move past these incidents and prevail.

We will prevail not because time will heal these wounds but because we as the American people are tired of having to reapply the band aid. Yes these events could have happened anywhere, but we are not going to sit around and watch them happen to us, to our neighbors or to our nation.

This task is not an easy one, to rid the country of the fear that it has been drowning in since Columbine since Sandy Hook and since Parkland.

These worries have been fed by rumors, opinions and most of all silence. It is the words one does not speak that are our most dangerous weapon. In order to see the change we have all been craving and desperately yearning for, each individual must do their part to speak up when they see threatening material on social media, when they see abnormal behavior in the classroom, when they see a student alone at the lunch table.

This epidemic of social injustice is preventable not only by evaluating the ways in which we distribute potential threatening material but how we respond when these materials are misused. These are proactive measures that every student can participate in which gives them the opportunity to enact an instantaneous and effective method of change.

If we can all do our part in speaking up when we witness these warning signals the ailments of fear will be cured with the medicinal practices of peace and unity and a new era of healthy communal activity and interactions will flourish. So go forth not as another byproduct of fear but as an agent that will actively speak out to vanquish it by standing up and speaking out.

Teachers, students and staff thank you for taking the first step in choosing to stand up and speak out.

Kalen Luciano’s Speech

Hello fellow students and staff members, and thank you in joining in Jefferson Township High School’s event to remember the lives that were lost one month ago from this day. While it is important to stand in solidarity with the victims and their families, we must take the passionate feelings that led to this event and turn it into further action.

In the wake of the Parkland mass shooting, many of us turned on our TV’s, scrolled through our social media, and watched the 24/7 coverage of the event. As we watched, we all wondered what can be done to stop this from happening in the future.

If we didn’t have a stance before on what must be done to stop the epidemic of mass shootings that plagues our nation, by the end of that first week, we each certainly developed one. Before this event was even thought up, I heard many arguments, whether online or in person, about what must be done. We all stood our ground and fought anyone who disagreed with us.

But fighting among ourselves won’t lead to change. Fighting will lead to gridlock and hurt feelings. Fighting will feed the vicious cycle of inaction until another mass shooting once again slips from our minds until another one occurs.

The one unifying element of the varying beliefs and opinions that I’ve heard has been this: we are concerned about our safety and we want something to be done. Regardless of where we stand, we are all sick and tired of watching the same breakdown on every news channel about the most recent mass shooting. We are sick and tired of hearing the countless lives that were lost, the reports of why the mass shooter decided to do it, and the figureheads yelling at each other-all while nothing gets done.

It has come to a point where these mass shootings occur so often that we are almost numb to this vicious cycle of death, grief, and repeat, but we can’t let it become normal. We can’t allow another innocent life to be lost. We can’t allow students to go to school in fear. We can’t allow this vicious cycle of mass shootings to continue any longer.

This event is the first stepping stone to breaking that chain, but only spending 17 minutes to remember the lives that were lost is not enough. We need to do more. To truly remember the lives that were lost, both in this most recent mass shooting and all previous ones, we must not let them die in vain. We must keep this passion alive.

Although we may disagree on what the solution is to ending gun violence in our schools and in our country, we all do agree that something must be done. We all want to see our statehouse and our Congress take steps towards real change. We all want to see them take action and address this complex and unfortunate issue.

In order to take the next steps to breaking the vicious cycle of inaction, we must all advocate for what we believe is the solution, so register to vote, learn about the candidates in the upcoming election and vote for those who support your beliefs, call or send a message to your local Congressman and the other politicians who are supposed to represent you, and join marches and organizations that support your solutions. Whether you’re 18 or 14, there is always something that you can do to stand up and make your voice heard.

We can no longer sit on the sidelines and argue among ourselves. We must open our ears to other ideas. We must fight for the solutions we believe will end these mass shootings. We must raise our voices to those in power and make it known that they represent us.

We can hold events to mourn the victims lost in this terrible tragedy. We can even send letters of support to the families who lost a loved one. But in order to truly stand in solidarity of both these victims and victims of all other mass shootings, we must end the cycle of inaction. We must make our voices heard and fight for what we believe in, and we must not stop until we see real change and real action to help end these tragedies.

Thank you.

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Maria Weiskott is a Jefferson Township resident and a forty year veteran of the publishing profession. An award-winning journalist and editor, she served in top managerial positions at numerous business-to- business newspapers and magazines including Reed Elsevier and Fairchild Publications. Early in her career she operated a local newspaper in the Passaic Valley towns of Little Falls, Totowa and the former West Paterson. Following retirement, she launched a “ghostblogging” service that provides social networking update and blogging services for small and medium sized businesses. Maria travels widely with her husband and is a passionate photographer. She can be reached at maria.weiskott@thejeffersonchronicle.com.