By Julie Pike, Editor-in-chief
Among the dozen or so high schools in Maine that participated in the national walkout to protest gun violence, Westbrook High School had three students come together in hopes to make a difference in their community.
What began as three separate ideas by Sandy Cao, Kelly Maguire and Zoe Popovic, joined together with the help of Westbrook High School’s Principal, Kelly Deveaux. Each of them had gone to Deveaux wanting to organize their own walkout, and she encouraged them to join forces.
“Any kind of participatory exercise in a democracy is a good thing and seeing that in a generation where many of them can’t legally vote yet is hopeful,” said Professor Ronald Schmidt, an Associate Professor of Political Science at USM.
Each of the three students had their own reasons for wanting to organize the protest, but collectively they wanted to incite change.
“When I heard about another shooting and all of the other ones before it, I saw how the young students at Parkland were reacting and that inspired me to join in on this movement,” Cao said. Maguire also noted that Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, delivered a moving speech that prompted her to want to do something.
“I wanted a conversation to be started,” Cao said. “The most important thing before starting change is to have people talking about it first. It gets people to learn more about it, to start their own ideas.” To promote discussion among students and the community, they invited two members of the Maine Legislature, Senator Cathy Breen and Rep. Andrew Gattine to join in a discussion with students about gun control and school safety. Both Breen and Gattine represent districts that include Westbrook.
While the walkout had to be rescheduled due to a snow day, it went on as planned on Thursday, March 15 at 10:25 a.m. The students were given this time by administration to conduct their protest outside in the front of the school. The school grounds were blocked off by police to ensure that students were not disturbed and kept safe.
About 100 students, out of the approximately 700 total who attend Westbrook High, got involved in the walkout, a number Cao stated that was more than they had hoped. Cao, Maguire and Popovic led the protest, beginning by listing off the names of the Parkland school shooting victims, adding in personal details about each of them. Afterwards, a moment of silence was held for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim.
Maguire stated that a majority of the walkout went smoothly, aside from a few students yelling and disrupting during the moment of silence. These students were asked by those around them to be quiet.
“With it being student run, some people don’t listen or just don’t know what it was about,” Popovic stated.
Since the protest was completely student run, they could not advertise about it through school email or in an announcement. Principal Deveaux made the restrictions clear, the school could not explicitly endorse their cause, but the administration ensured that the students had the right to protest. Deveaux also assisted in getting Breen and Gattine to come to the school.
“She didn’t help us just because she agreed with us, it was because she came to her,” Popovic said. “She would have done the same regardless of which side the protest was for.”
Principal Deveaux, who is the first female principal at Westbrook High School in the 68 years of its establishment, was supportive of the three female students in getting their voice heard.
“She’s been so helpful and vocal about the presence of strong female voices, which has helped us organize this protest,” Cao stated. Cao, Maguire and Popovic were all in agreement that female students held the majority of those who were interested in protesting against gun violence, Cao believes that this is due to society and gender roles.
“I think it’s a maturity and social group thing,” Popovic said. “Females are more mature at this age than males. It also has to do with what your friends are supporting. With a lot of guys in our school, if their friends weren’t supporting it, they wouldn’t go out of their way.”
Professor Vassallo, an Associate Professor of Political Science at USM brought up the connection of the walkouts with the Women’s Marches that began last year.
“Overall it has been stated that women now have become more active in political causes than before, maybe because recent actions/decisions have affected women the most,” Vassallo stated. She added that the increase of activism among young people fits with the increase of protest movements in the country.
After school on the same day as the walkout, the students held an open discussion with Breen and Gattine. Breen spoke about her role on the Senate and the role of the Maine Legislature. She also informed the students about two bills that had been put forth related to firearms in Maine.
Bill L.D. 1761, which the Portland Press Herald reported was rejected by the Maine House of Representatives, would have allowed parents and guardians picking up children from school to have firearms in their vehicles. The firearms would have to be unloaded and stored in a locker. In the state of Maine guns are currently not allowed on the entire school property.
Support of this bill came from families who would be out hunting before picking up their children, and didn’t want to have to go home first to drop off their guns, in turn making them late. Breen testified against it, stating that she thought that parents should just have to leave earlier to pick up their kids instead of jeopardizing their safety.
The other bill in discussion is sponsored by Senator Mark Dion of Portland and has not been made public yet. It would allow people in a household or family to be able to go to a judge with an allegation of an imminent safety risk to temporarily suspend a person’s right to possess firearms. The suspension would last for 21 days. After that both parties would appear before the judge again to determine if that person can safely handle a gun.
Breen stated that this bill is still in the premature stages. She thinks that bans on assault rifles or accessories would not pass through the legislative council.
Vassallo is in support of this bill, stating that family members are closer to a person who may be unstable and can help avoid a bad situation from getting worse. Schmidt mentioned that this bill makes sense for situations of domestic abuse as those situations are a likely situation for violence.
“Nothing is going to change about gun control until the Constitution changes,” Breen stated. “As long as we have a Second Amendment in place it’s going to be very difficult to change the status quo.”
Breen also mentioned a proposed bond to increase security measures in school, which has gone through the legislative council. The Portland Press Herald reported that it would be a $20 million bond that could potentially be put up for a vote in the future.
“Members of both parties are all saying that want more school security. They may mean different things by it, but arranging for the money to be there in the first place is a necessary starting place, whether they think that means arming teachers or involving police in moderating schools more closely.” Schmidt sees the school security bond as a more likely winner to pass through the legislature.
A major topic of discussion centered around the need for more young people to vote. Cao, Maguire and Popovic also organized a voter registration to be set up during the day of the protest. Breen encouraged students to vote, run for office or get involved in campaigns.
“I want to believe that the student reaction to Parkland is changing the tide,” Breen said.
The main focus of the high school walkouts is the fact that it is student led. All around the country, high school students got involved in their own protest, wanting to make a difference in the gun violence facing the nation.
“I think it’s so important that we are seeing young people participate in this way,” Schmidt stated. “Through democratic means and through freely assembling, they are providing their argument for how we should read the Second Amendment.”