UNION, NJ — Hundreds of Union High School students marched to town hall as part of a nationwide demonstration against gun violence in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting that left 17 dead last month.
Students stood on the high school football field around 10 a.m. on March 14 for 17 minutes of silence in remembrance of the students and teachers killed. Hundreds then walked to town hall, chanting “Enough is enough,” a phrase coined on social media for frustration with the number of school shootings that have taken place.
“Gun laws is one part of the argument,” said high school student Sienna Bucu, adding that she wants to see action taken on mental health or security in schools, too. “All I really want is action. Everyone is talking about what’s right and what’s wrong — how they feel about an argument — and they’re just talking.”
Students in other Union County towns — including Hillside, Elizabeth, New Providence, Summit, Springfield, Westfield, Scotch Plains, Linden and Clark — also demonstrated. Some students walked outside the school building with signs, while others met with local officials inside the school.
The Union students’ plan to march to town hall was initially met with opposition from school board President Vito Nufrio. He placed a resolution on the March 13 meeting agenda that called for students to be disciplined per school policy if they participated in the walkout and left school grounds.
“Your right to demonstrate or protest does have specific boundaries that are clearly detailed within the resolution,” Nufrio said at the meeting, reading from a letter he had written. “It is not intended to violate nor deter you from exercising your constitutional right to speak and assemble. It’s sole purpose is to advise and guide you as we are expected to do so.”
That resolution, which called the walkout a “disruption,” was pulled from the agenda after students, board member Jeff Monge, parents and some teachers showed their opposition at the meeting.
The whole school, which has a student population of more than 2,000, did not participate in the walkout, Superintendent Gregory Tatum said as he watched from the bleachers while students stood on the football field.
“Your first line of discipline authority is with your building principal, Mr. Lowery,” Tatum said earlier at the March 13 meeting, addressing the students. “Tomorrow morning, I will confer with him regarding any disciplinary issues that he may choose to institute, if any at all for that matter.
That’s going to be his prerogative and he will have my support for whatever decision he does make.
“But I will say that I ask you to be safe,” Tatum added. “I’m going to ask you to organize yourselves appropriately and represent yourselves and your families well tomorrow. Hopefully this will be a situation where it will provide a lesson for all of us as a teaching moment.”
Although hundreds stood on the football field, some went back to class and did not participate in the march to town hall. Student demonstrators blocked the eastbound lane as they walked about a mile on Morris Avenue, with police on foot, motorcycle and in patrol cars blocking traffic.
School Principal Corey Lowery told LocalSource that students who peacefully marched to town hall would not be disciplined. Once they arrived back at the high school, attendance would be taken again, he said.
“I want you guys to remember this is not a one-day thing,” he said. “You live your life based on your values and your principals. If you believe something is not right in your world, in your country, in your town, in your community, and your home you have to speak up about it. You have to plan and you have to organize.
“This is not about being emotional,” Lowery added. “This is about being rational. It’s about being logical and it’s about being intelligent. I just want to let you guys know that you guys have made me proud as your principal. I will never forget this moment in my life and I believe that this is what true education is about.”
Students also read poems and speeches and were joined by Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas on the steps of town hall.
“Gun violence is a major issue in this world,” the mayor said. “I, as a parent, am committed to ensure and work with the board of education, the police and advisory committees to make sure that what happened in Parkland, Fla., does not happen here in Union.”
Seventeen people were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day, allegedly by a former student who reportedly used a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle.
Union High School students arrived back at campus at around 1 p.m. after the demonstration.