HANCOCK COUNTY — Across the country, each protest struck a different tone.

Students in Washington, D.C., hoisted “Stand United” signs as they chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the NRA has got to go” outside the White House. Others put 14 desks and 3 podiums in a circle to honor the 17 students and faculty killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, according to reports by The Associated Press.

And in Hancock County, hundreds joined to send a message: something has to change.

And, like the students organizing the events locally, walkouts held at three of the four high schools in Hancock County (one district is out on spring break this week) were distinct from one another, with some focusing on standing in silent solidarity while others encouraged debate about how to prevent such acts of terror from happening again in the United States.

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‘Part of the problem’

At 9:55 that morning, three boys walked in. Three girls had joined them by 9:57, and another two trickled in a few minutes later. Timidly, they looked around as they took seats in the bleachers, clearly curious what would happen next. Would they be the only ones?

But as the clock struck 10, any worries would be wiped away as a river of their Greenfield-Central High School classmates flowed into school’s gymnasium.

About 250 Greenfield-Central students stood up and walked out of their classrooms Wednesday morning, participating in a nationwide protest aiming to simultaneously honor the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, and to call action to stop gun violence in schools.

Greenfield-Central administrators worked with students to find a compromise for Wednesday’s event to let the teens exercising their First Amendment rights while ensuring student safety. Instead of walking out of the building, students came to the gymnasium, where an armed Greenfield Police Department officer and several faculty members stood watch. There, students read the names of those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and heard from two seniors who prepared speeches on gun rights and mental health.

While she was thankful for the district’s cooperation and assistance, student Alaina Scott couldn’t help but feel some bitterness.

“The fact that we can’t even walk out of our school without the fear of being shot is part of the problem,” the 18-year-old said, addressing the crowd of her classmates.

Principal Jason Cary said he was impressed how the students handled themselves. Every part of the protest was student-led, he said, admitting the administrators weren’t sure what would happen Wednesday morning.

Few chit-chatted as they settled into their spots in the bleachers, and even fewer fiddled with their cellphones. They sat and listened to their peers and allowed any silences to pass as poignantly as possible.

It gave him faith in those who will one day lead, he told students via Twitter that afternoon.

“Our future is in good hands,” he wrote.

‘Their only option’

As the protest at Greenfield-Central High School drew to a close, Tanner Hord gratefully accepted hugs and handshakes from his classmates and teachers.

Moments before, the senior shared aloud his own struggles with mental health and how he believes emotional wellness affects the debate on gun violence. In a passionate address, he encouraged his peers to be kind to one another, to watch out for the kid who might be battling the kind of demons he once faced. To be open to others’ differences.

“Everybody feels pain. From the quiet kid at the end of the lunch table to the kid who won’t shut up about the new Star Wars movie,” Hord said, pointing to himself after his remark about the famed film franchise, which drew a laugh from the crowd. “It’s time we stop making this a taboo topic.”

Hord told his classmates he’s gotten a lot of help to find happiness. He takes medication and visits to a counselor regularly. But he still worries about what might have happened if he hadn’t sought that aid and found a way up. And he wonders what others who are feeling the same pain as he did might do.

Young people who don’t speak up about what they’re going through, who aren’t listened to and acknowledged and accepted, grow up to become frustrated adults who “harbor shame, fear and resentment for their thoughts,” Hord said during his speech, calling upon his classmates to act with kindness and empathy.

“If we don’t, there will be a person who is intelligent, bright and mistreated. Mistreated by their parents. Mistreated by their situations. Maybe even mistreated by their school. And they’ll decide that their only option is go down in a fiery hail of bullets and take the ones who wronged them with them.”

Cause of debate

Shelby Kendall grew up in a home where hunting and pistol-carrying was normal.

She gets it, she told a crowd of about 30 of her Eastern Hancock High School classmates Wednesday midday. She understands why people want to own guns, why they use them for sport and protection. She just wants it to be harder for the people who want to use guns to kill to get their hands on weapons.

Kendall was one of five Eastern Hancock students who planned a presentation for their classmates Wednesday in the school’s auditorium. The young organizers wore a purple T-shirts with “17” emblazoned on the front and the names of each person killed in Parkland on the back. They flipped through a slideshow presentation, flashing statistics about gun violence and contact information for the state and federal legislators who serve the district’s residents.

Then, they fielded questions from their audience — some of whom turned out to voice their opposition to their classmates’ stance on gun rights.

Their debate was civil, students on each side listening respectfully, and included all the points typically brought up in national debate on gun control. And the student-organizers said they were glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with classmates who might have differing opinions.

In the end, teens having their say, making their voices heard, was an important part of events held across the country Wednesday, Kendall said. The nation’s youth are being more persistent than ever before about the changes they want to see in their country, she said.

“As teenagers, we think don’t have the power to change anything because we can’t vote,” she said. “But we still change the outcome in coming years.”

A symbol of solidarity

They huddled together against the cold in silence, waiting for the signal.

Suddenly, a young woman made a heart shape with her hands, and the New Palestine High School students sprang into action, quietly joining hands or linking arms. The shape of them, united in a common theme, created an enormous heart stretching across the school’s track and football field.

More than 100 New Palestine students of all ages, freshmen to seniors, participated in a 17-minute show of support for the 17 high school students killed a month ago in Parkland.

Some had planned ahead, donning fleece blankets or thick winter gear as they braved the chilly winds Wednesday morning, filing across the school’s parking lot, through the football stadium gates and out onto the field.

Principal Keith Fessler said school leaders wanted to keep safety a foremost priority while allowing students to take part in the National School Walkout.

Police officers guarded the school and parking lot during the event, and teachers volunteered to stand along the students’ path from the school to the football field.

“Several students came down and talked to us about wanting to participate in this,” Fessler said. “This was the best way to do it we could think of.”

Administrators were in charge of keeping the students safe, but the content of the ceremony was up to the students, he said.

Fessler said he was proud of the students for coming up with a peaceful way to show their sorrow and solidarity following the Florida school shooting.

“Our students in virtually every occasion they express themselves have well-thought-out ideas,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us to listen.”

Quote

“Some members in our community will undoubtedly suggest that school leaders should demand that students ignore the national student protest movement. Others may assert that schools are facilitating the movement by not threatening students in an effort to silence them and downplay the protest planned for these days. Neither stance appears to be the appropriate response for the students in our community. We are an educational institution, and we do not help our students become well-rounded citizens by taking away their opportunity to make important decisions and formulate their own opinions.”

— Greenfield-Central Schools Superintendent Harold Olin, in a letter to parents about the district’s response to student-led protests held Wednesday.

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.