On Wednesday, thousands of students throughout the United States walked out of classrooms as part of National School Walkout, a demonstration calling for safer schools and increased gun control, in the wake of the February high school shooting that left 17 Florida students dead.
Many of the walkouts were planned to last 17 minutes, in honor of each of the students who were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. Many Catholic schools used the day as a chance to call their students to prayer, either in addition to or instead of a walkout.
Schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans were asked to hold 17 minutes of prayer in solidarity with shooting victims and the walkouts. The prayer services included the rosary, as well as the archdiocesan prayer against violence, murder and racism, which is recited regularly at Masses in the region.
“We didn’t hear of any schools or students participating (in the walk-out), but we were hearing from our school communities, ‘What could we do, what could we offer in support of lessening gun violence?’” Dr. RaeNell Houston, superintendent of Catholic Schools in New Orleans, told the Clarion Herald.
“Our children deserve to be safe in our school communities,” Houston added. “But we felt intentional, dedicated prayer would yield more fruitful results than a walkout. I am a witness to how God answers prayer. And we felt our time was best utilized and our statement would be bold if we dedicated that 17 minutes of prayer on behalf of the Florida victims and our country and for the safety of our children.”
Cardinal Ritter College Prep, a Catholic urban high school in St. Louis, participated in an organized school event.
rnStudents left campus at 9:30 am and walked to nearby St. Francis Xavier Church on the campus of St. Louis University. Ronnie Robinson, the father of a recent graduate, was invited to participate in the march. Robinson and his family have lost two sons to gun violence in recent years.
After a period of prayer and silence, students returned to their classrooms to discuss the events of the day, to review the school’s active shooter policy, and to resume classes.
Elias Mendoza, principal of St. Francis Catholic High School in Sacramento, California sent a memo to parents in early March, in anticipation of the walkouts, noting that school officials recognized both the students concerns and as well as their own obligation as school employees to remain politically neutral.
Instead of a walkout, St. Francis offered a prayer service for peace and healing, noting safety concerns regarding students leaving campus in the middle of the school day.
“Together with students and school leaders, we’re working to provide students with an alternative avenue to express their viewpoints in a constructive and meaningful way, while remaining on campus, where safety measures are in place to ensure supervision and security,” Mendoza said in his letter.
“At St. Francis, we care about our (students), our families, and the faith-based community we represent. Moving forward, I ask for your prayers and partnership in doing all that we can to reassure our students and to make them strong resilient young women,” he concluded.
The Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey said on Twitter that several of the schools participated in the national walk out, and held prayer services afterward.
Sister Brittany Harrison, FMA, is the Theology Department Chair at Mary Help of Christians Academy in New Jersey.
In an interview about the walkouts with Relevant Radio, Harrison said that she was inspired by the students throughout the country who were “deciding to rise up, make their voices heard, and make social change.”
“As a Salesian, that’s what I believe in, the power of young people. So to see them doing that is just an incredible thing for me,” she said.
Harrison said that while the official walkout, sponsored by the organizers of the national Women’s March, was focused on gun control legislation, her students wanted to make their event less political and more focused on school safety in general.
Rather than the walkout, the school held a prayer service and also gave students time to write government officials about the changes they’d like to see.
“As Catholics we can really model what it is to affect social change, and our young people really want to do that,” she said.
The Diocese of Peoria, Illinois encouraged its students to take part in some kind of alternative, prayerful show of solidarity rather than the walkout, citing concerns about some of the sponsors of the national walk-out as well as safety concerns.
“Unfortunately, some of the sponsors of the National School Walkout advocate for positions that are contrary to the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life in all of its stages,” the Office of Catholic Schools stated in a letter to diocesan Catholic school officials.
“Due to this fact, as well as concerns for student safety on this day of national attention, our schools are directed to not permit students to stage a walkout.”
Instead, the letter suggested that diocesan schools hold Masses or prayer services for the victims.
Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit held memorial services for the victims of the Parkland shooting, including posters with pictures and brief biographies of the victims.
Queen of Angels elementary school in the Archdiocese of Atlanta said on Twitter that they were hosting a “walk in” rather than a walkout, and used the day as a time to encourage their students to focus on ways they could be kinder and more inclusive.
In Erie, Pennsylvania, two Catholic schools - Cathedral Preparatory School and Villa Maria Academy - held school-wide Masses and prayer services for the victims and for peace. Father Scott Jabo, president of the schools, told Fox News that the schools considered how they could approach the walkout day differently as a Catholic school.
“By praying for the victims, we could bring a great focus to the victims in this situation, and by unified prayer, we could have a powerful impact,” Jabo said.
He added that at the prayer service, the names and a short biography of each of the 17 Parkland victims would be read aloud, “to make it real that these are real people who died.”
“(We’re) doing something that was a Catholic school we can and should do and that is pray, and unleash that power of prayer,” he said.