The real story behind North Bergen High School students’ participation in the national student walkout against gun violence on March 14 began after it ended.
After the 17-minute demonstration on John F. Kennedy Boulevard between 73rd and 76th Streets ended, the estimated 2,350 students who walked out were supposed to return to class, momentary excitement to be replaced by regular instruction.
Only, some didn’t.
The national walkout, which took place across the country, was partially meant to memorialize the 17 students and teachers killed during the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Students walked out from several local schools for 17 minutes.
But after the NBHS walkout, around 40 students launched an impromptu sitdown on JFK Boulevard, blocking traffic and closing the street for a short time.
Police and administrators, facing a safety issue, managed to get most them off the streets, but then, the students did another sitdown on the sidewalk in front of the school. They spent much of the following two hours ripping into America’s gun culture, Congressional inaction against gun violence, and those criticizing the young activists.
“I’m not disrespecting you,” one student said to observing police officers and school staff. “I’m making a statement. A statement that something needs to change.”
The main goal of Wednesday’s event was to “demand that Congress enact an immediate resolution declaring gun violence a public health crisis” and seek solutions, according to a website for Women’s Youth EMPOWER, the group that organized the national walkouts.
Exercising free speech
During the extended protest in North Bergen, several students spoke out against gun violence.
“The Second Amendment, fine,” the first student said. “People do need to protect themselves. But it needs to modernize. We are changing as a society.”
Jose Mojica, 17, experienced school gun violence in his native Caracas, Venezuela. “In the area where I used to go to school, there was a student that actually brought a gun to a school, and his friend shot himself,” Mojica said, during the walkout. “I personally believe that when people have access to weaponry, including students that are underage, and there’s no regulation whosoever, this is the stuff that happens.”
Jonathan Lopez, 18, said assailants once robbed his family with assault weapons during a trip to Honduras. “I can understand both sides of the argument,” Lopez said. “When people abuse guns, there’s so much damage that could be done. But I can also understand why people would feel defenseless and the need to defend themselves somehow.”
But when citizens have such free access to weapons, that’s when the real danger begins, he said.
Ammar Eitigani, 16, believes that both pro and anti-gun control sides need to talk.
“I think that we should compromise more,” Eitigani said. “Actually talk more to each other, so we can find a real solution. Left, Right, Republican, I think we can agree that no one should die in school.”
“I think we can agree that no one should die in school.” – Ammar Eitigani
According to NBHS senior Mellina Sihombing, the administration supported the walkout. But she and other students said that school officials banned them from discussing gun control and gun violence.
Students held the sitdown so that “we can say what we want without the principal telling us what we can or can’t say,” she explained in an email. She also claimed Principal Paschal Tennaro threatened to suspend sitdown participants.
Tennaro denied some of the allegations.
“I haven’t suspended anybody,” he said. He did admit that the administration disallowed students from creating posters about gun violence and gun control, because that was not in the original plans.
“The issue of gun control is at a Congressional level,” Tennaro said. He also said students could have more impact by voting for politicians who are pro-gun control, if that’s their aim.
“Our focus shouldn’t be guns,” Tennaro said. “It should be school security,” which he says students are a critical part of.
Tennaro said he met with student leaders in the weeks preceding the march and that they agreed the march should just be a tribute to the 17 Parkland victims, and nothing further.
But, he said, he found a Tweet from a student shortly before the walkout, telling other students they were going to sit down, regardless of what the principal wanted. He said he ignored it.
He also claimed that some students yelled in his face during the walkout.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. George Solter also said he saw students yelling at Tennaro. “That can’t be tolerated,” he said.
The students engaged in the sitdown received “cut slips” because they were at school but not in class. Based on the number of cut slips a student gets, and their personal record, they could receive punishment, including detention or suspension.
Tennaro met with the students in the school’s guidance department after they returned to school.
During that meeting, according to one student present, a student asked Tennaro a question, but the principal “accused that student of being insubordinate. And then they were yelling at each other back forth,” Sihombing said
Video sent to the Reporter, which a student said was taken at the meeting, includes audio of Tennaro cutting a student off and saying, “No, it’s my school, and you’re going to be subordinate to me.” The camera briefly shows Tennaro’s face.
“I don’t recall saying that,” Tennaro said last week. “But I could’ve said that.”
Senior Class President Arianna Diaz said that the sitdown students had sat in on walkout planning meetings, but never spoke up about their plans.
Despite the back and forth between the students and administrators, Sihombing said she doesn’t want this framed as a “students vs. the principal thing.”
“I don’t mean to seem like we were undermining Tennaro,” she said. “We wanted to have the protest our way to make a stand for gun control.”
High-Tech students also walk out
Nearby, High-Tech High School students were staging their own civil disobedience. According to an e-mail from a student who requested his name not be used, the administration threatened suspensions for anyone who did anything beyond the initial walkout.
The students had planned to march to Jersey City’s Brennan Courthouse, but changed plans after the alleged threats.
Instead, they held a sitdown inside the school faculty parking lot, beginning after the walkout to until 1:30, sans administrative approval.
“That comment is totally false,” responded High Tech High School Principal Joseph Giammarella, regarding any suspension threats. “We never considered suspensions. We followed school policy and rules.”
Giammarella added that the school security worked to protect the students during their sitdown.
Hannington Dia can be reached at email@example.com