Catholic school students remember school shooting victims with prayer, activism

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WAKEFIELD — On March 14, as students around the country commemorated the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, exactly one month earlier, students at many of the nation’s Catholic schools honored the 17 victims with prayer and discussion of how to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.

At The Prout School, Wakefield, students held a prayer vigil honoring the victims and offering prayers for their community. Inspired by the actions of students in Florida as witnessed on social media and calls for a National School Walkout to protest gun violence, students also called for stricter gun control measures in Rhode Island and nationally and more funding for research on mental health.

“We saw a lot of the students in Florida taking action and my dad was the one asking if we were planning a walkout,” said Kathryn Staebler, a junior. “We saw that we had a lot of support from our classmates, so we set up a meeting with our administration.”

Staebler and several other juniors, including Bella Bianco, Olivia Legault, Sara McCormick and Cat Brownell, passed around a petition to gauge student interest and met with school administrators to discuss plans for a student-run assembly. They worked with school Chaplain Father Joseph Upton to plan the prayer service. Originally planned as an outdoor assembly to coincide with the walkouts taking place at 10 a.m. around the country, the vigil took place in the school auditorium due to the previous day’s snow.

“We are gathered here today to remember the 17 people who lost their lives in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,” Bianco read during the vigil. “We can no longer sit back and watch this cycle of violence continue any longer, and it is time to speak out.”

Around the country, students walked out of class or held assemblies within the school building at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to honor the 17 lives lost in the shooting. According to reports by Catholic News Service, some schools also honored the victims of gun violence in other parts of the country and many Catholic school students participated in special Masses or prayed the rosary on that day.

“This was about standing in solidarity. As a Catholic school, we stand in solidarity through prayer and offering guidance from God,” said Danny White, a senior who participated in a prayer service at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, Missouri.

While students participating in the walkouts met with a range of reactions as administrators struggled to balance students’ desire to take action with concerns about student safety and existing school rules, many received the support of school officials and church leaders who reminded them of the importance of protesting in a peaceful, prayerful manner.

“I stand with the students who are ‘walking out’ today (or praying) to protest gun violence, as long as they do so in a safe and positive way,” wrote Bishop Thomas J. Tobin on his Twitter account. “Prayer and action – a powerful combination. Let their voices be heard.”

According to Catholic School Superintendent Daniel Ferris, in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, Catholic school administrators have been reevaluating their crisis response plans to ensure they present the best course of action for student safety. These efforts include a presentation by State Police Captain Derek Borek, planned prior to the February 14 shooting, at an upcoming principals’ and administrators’ meeting on the latest thinking and practice in school safety.

“Our schools have very much been interested and are taking part in trainings to deal with active shooters,” said Ferris. “Along with that, they have actively sought to look at ways to address students who have social and emotional issues in the schools with age-appropriate resources, including referrals to mental health care providers.”

At The Prout School, students raised their voices but also maintained periods of silence as they remembered the 17 victims whose voices would never be heard again. For those participating, the reciting of the victims’ names followed by 17 periods of silence was a powerful moment.

“That really hit me how much of an impact it is to lose 17 lives in your community,” said Legault, one of the coordinators of the event. “We want change. We want to be safe in our schools and we really think this should be addressed by the government at a national level.”

On March 24, several thousand students, families and gun control supporters are expected to participate in the national March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., to further protest gun violence and call for stricter gun control legislation.