Prep school students ‘walk out’ and ‘walk up’

Students honor Florida school shooting victims, seek end to gun violence

Genesis Knoblach, a senior at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville, was one of more than 100 students who walked out of class around 10 a.m. March 14 as part of a national movement of youth and young adults. The event was planned to honor the lives of the 17 people killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and raise awareness about the need to end gun violence.

Freshman Max Penzkover holds a sign in silence as the group stands outside St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville. A group of students at St. John’s Prep School were among high school students around the country who participated in a national walk out March 14, exactly one month since the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The national event took place at 10 a.m. to honor the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and protest gun violence. (Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

“From who I am and my beliefs and what I’ve learned about myself here [at Prep], God is love,” Knoblach said. “At the end of the day, if you have to sum up anything about God, it’s that God is love. God is totally with us. That’s what we are here for. Our walkout is because we want to ‘walk up.’ We want to be positive. We want to love each other. We want to make sure that everyone is OK.”

Although the walkout was not a school-sponsored event, students approached SJP Principal Pamela McCarthy before Wednesday’s march. McCarthy sent a letter to the parents ahead of time to make them aware of the walkout.

“I just wanted the parents to know that we, as a school, knew about it and to encourage them to have conversations with their kids,” McCarthy said.

One of the student’s parents responded to McCarthy, challenging her to promote a “walk up” in the school community.

“The goal is to walk up to 17 people that you wouldn’t normally talk to. Invite them to sit with you at lunch, hang out with you after school, really trying to have an authentic conversation,” McCarthy explained. “That could have a real immediate impact. When people feel that they belong to a community, when they feel cared for, they are much more likely to uphold norms and expectations.”

At the walkout, students carried signs as they made their way down the hill from the prep school and gathered on the steps of the abbey church. There they stood in silence except for student organizer Kelsey Christensen, a freshman, who read aloud the name of one victim of the Parkland shooting each minute for 17 minutes.

Christensen said that her main goal was to let students know that they can make a difference.

Kelsey Christensen, center, who helped organize the walk out, and Valeriya Woodard, right, both freshmen at the school lead the group to the Abbey Church. (Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

“I feel like everyone should understand that their voices can be heard and should be heard,” she said. “I want people to know that age doesn’t matter, gender doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is your voice,” she said.

Freshman Hannah Ausland said some students weren’t going to participate because “they think a walkout in the middle of Minnesota isn’t going to do anything. With attitudes like that, change isn’t going to happen.”

Following the period of silence, students continued their walk back to the school where they held a brief discussion and joined together in prayer.

“We don’t just want to walk out and have it end there,” Christensen said. “We want to be able to continue talking about this and resolve these issues.”

“A lot of this has been a bit about mental health issues,” Knoblach added. “How can we talk about that and deal with that? At the end of the day, love is what is really going to help everybody. … We are doing God’s work and spreading his love everywhere and that’s exactly what we need to be doing.”

McCarthy recognizes the need for students to have the opportunity to participate in healthy dialogue about social issues.

“I think it’s a really neat thing that kids are finding ways to be involved and to choose for themselves what makes the most sense,” McCarthy said. “Whether they participate in the walkout or the walk up or in prayer, something that I am proud of in all of our students is the ability to think for themselves. Some students have different opinions than their parents, than their peers, than their neighbors and I think it is a cool thing that the kids can have that thought and to stand up for it even if it goes against what others are thinking.”

McCarthy announced the walk up to the student body on March 12 and said it will continue to be woven into daily life at the school.

“The walk up will really make a community of love, which will make everyone feel comforted, which will hopefully prevent more people from wanting to do things like shootings,” said freshman Valeriya Woodard, who says she tries to spread kindness through social media.

Freshman Hana May said that as a new student at the school this year, she appreciated the already welcoming environment and tries to do her part in continuing that feeling for others.

The students pause at the Abbey Church to read the names of the 17 killed last month. The event concluded with a short group discussion and prayer. (Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

“Coming from a different school, I felt so accepted, and I think they have already built this wonderful, accepting community,” May said. “I think that now we need to spread that not only throughout the school but beyond the school.”

Christensen said she’s seen videos where one person does something kind and it inspires others to do something kind.

“It just continues to pass on from one to another — you open a door, you pay for someone’s lunch, you help someone, it inspires someone else to do something nice as well. And if we can form a kind community, then we’ve really achieved something,” she said.

Sofia Bostrom, also a freshman said, “You don’t have to do something big to make a big difference in someone’s life.”

“Even smiling at someone could mean the world to someone,” May agreed.

“It is amazing that if you plant that tiny little seed of positivity, it grows into something incredible,” Knoblach said. “I think that’s what we can do. It may take some time and it may take a little effort but in the end, we are going to have an even better world to lay witness to that.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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