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Bucks County students are grieving over the children and teachers killed in the Uvalde, Texas massacre. Pennridge High School students organized a memorial to honor the victims, make space for students to share their collective pain, and take a stance against gun violence.
Meanwhile, Uvalde families began funeral services this week for the 19 children and two teachers killed.
About 40 Pennridge students gathered at the flagpole after school, listed the names of the Uvalde students and teachers, and shared 21 minutes of silence together. District employees also joined in, including Pennridge high school teachers, Superintendent David Bolton, and Pennridge principal Stephen Cashman.
Pennridge Sophomore Morgan Hammond gave a brief message to close the gathering.
“I feel unsafe,” said Hammond, about walking into her school building these days. “I walk in the school and I think, ‘Is this going to happen to me and am I going to be able to get home? Do I have to watch my classmate or my teacher die in front of me?’” said Hammond.
She hopes for stricter gun laws in the United States.
“It’s all a cycle; there’s a shooting, we all talk about it, thoughts and prayers, and then we just move on with our lives and nothing changes,” said Hammond. “We should be able to speak out, donate, protest, join organizations that can stop this… Instead of being so selfish and prideful about guns, we should be caring about these children’s lives that are being lost.”
Gun violence hits home for Hammond. They are thinking of their cousin in North Carolina, where in 2018 a student shot and killed another student in his high school who was bullying him.
The Tuesday gathering was originally meant to be a protest. Students planned to walk out in the middle of the day during class time.
That plan was met with threats of punishment from the school district.
An email from superintendent Bolton was sent to high school parents. He stated that if the students walked out, they would be given a three-hour Saturday detention. If students did not attend that detention, seniors would not be permitted to walk in graduation. Other students’ report cards would be withheld and they would be placed on “out-of-school suspension.”
“As administration of the high school, we constantly look to provide students a voice in the world they live in,” wrote Bolton. “We are tasked with balancing this need for a voice with our obligation to educate our students.”
This isn’t the first time Pennridge students were threatened with detention for protesting gun violence.
In 2018, Pennridge high school students walked out during the school day after the Parkland, Florida shooting. The 46 students then had to serve a Saturday detention, which made national news.
The threat of punishment made some students uncomfortable, according to Annika Verma, one of the student organizers. Verma said the last Saturday detention lands on the day after prom. Naturally, she said, students didn’t want to risk having to come into the building that day.
Verma said the organizers felt more students would participate if they pushed the timing back to after school.
Verma said she felt like the administration chose not to support the students’ protest.
“If they wanted to be supportive, they could absolutely be,” Verma said. “They’re making the choice not to.”
Verma wishes they were able to do a walk-out, that it may have sent a different kind of message.
“These children died during class time. They died when they were supposed to be with their friends. So we should be able to take that time, remove ourselves from our friends, remove ourselves from our classrooms, and go outside and to protest what occurred during their class time,” Verma said.
Members of the media, including WHYY News, were waiting outside the school’s campus to speak with students involved in the memorial.
Reporters were not allowed on campus during the gathering. A number of school security guards were standing at the entrance, and police cars drove by the reporters a few times, near the entrance. After the memorial, students who had initially planned to be interviewed, decided not to speak to the reporters. WHYY News was able to speak with some students before and after the gathering over the phone.
Both Verma and Hammond spoke about their worry for younger students around them.
“I would say it’s less of a worry about my own safety. It’s more of a worry about the young lives around me,” said Verma. “The violence, it feels like it ages you. I can’t accept that I’m 16 years old and planning a protest or memorial at my high school.”
“Usually I’m not so proud of the Pennridge District because there are so many acts of hate towards minorities and the LGBTQ community,” said Hammond. “So when I went to the memorial and I saw everyone was there, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only one who cared about this issue and that other people wanted to contribute and make a change as well.”