Lafayette High School freshman Trevion Breaux emerged from the school’s main entrance shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday and plopped himself on top of the sign bearing the school’s name on the front lawn.
Facing a handful of supporters and reporters standing a couple dozen feet away on the Congress Street sidewalk, Breaux unleashed a bellow that could be heard above the busy traffic.
“No justice, no peace!” Breaux called out.
Several dozen of Breaux’s classmates soon joined him, as they participated in a national student demonstration against gun violence on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Thousands of students across the U.S. planned to walk out of class at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes, one minute for each of those who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Students participated with varying levels of sanctioning by local school boards, and the Lafayette Parish School System’s waffling on the matter was somewhat controversial.
Administrators on March 1 issued a statement saying students would be allowed to peacefully participate in the walkout without fear of discipline. The following week, however, elected school board members reversed course, voting to allow only a one-minute moment of silence.
In a statement following the March 7 vote, the School Board cautioned that “conduct which materially disrupts classwork or substantially invades the rights of others is not protected” by the constitution.
Administrators at Lafayette High made a scheduling change to reduce the chances of such a disruption.
Third period, which starts at 9 a.m. and lasts only half an hour, is set aside for study halls, free time and an ACT prep course that many students blow off, said junior Poete Pittman, who participated in the protest. Fourth period, starting at 9:35 a.m., normally lasts 50 minutes until 10:25 a.m.
On Wednesday, fourth-period classes started at 9 a.m. and was followed by the lax period starting around 10 a.m., creating a transition-period that roughly aligned with the planned walkout and ensured that any related tardiness was essentially inconsequential.
“The new adjustment timed with the kids that wanted to spontaneously walk out, and also had the least impact on instruction,” said Joe Craig, the system’s chief administrative officer.
Pittman, speaking by telephone later in the afternoon, said he understood the need to maximize valuable academic time, but adjusting the schedule to accommodate the walkout “kind of takes away the point of a walkout.”
“It also would be a little more of a wakeup call. Like this math class is not as important to us as our safety right now,” Pittman said. “I personally would have accepted a detention. It’s an understandable thing. If somebody walks out of class, and you catch them, you can get a detention.”
Pittman said he wished his classmates had stayed the full 17 minutes, as national organizers had called for. It would have been easier if a group had decided in advance to do so, he said.
“I wanted to stay out, but then I feel like it wouldn’t have made much difference,” Pittman said. “Once I saw all those people going inside, I thought, well, it’s over.”
The School Board’s statement last week hinting that disciplinary action could result from disruptive protests was close to an about face from the administration’s previous statement, which said the walkout “supports the position that change is necessary in order to provide a school setting that is from the fear of being harmed at school.”
“I think it’s unfortunate they came out and supported it, and then reversed. I think it would have been better if they had stayed out of it to begin with,” said Pittman’s father, Aaron Lozier, as he watched students emerge from the school.
Lozier said he supported his son’s decision to protest, calling the student movement that has emerged over the last month “our first, best hope of change.”
“It seems like the students taking action themselves has actually gotten people’s attention,” Lozier said.
Not all parents appreciated the administration’s initial decision to allow the walkout, said Jeremy Hidalgo, the School Board’s vice president who introduced the motion allowing only for a moment of silence.
Hidalgo said the motion was necessary because the administration’s initial statement created the perception the system was taking a political stance on gun control, as opposed to simply honoring the victims in the Florida. Hidalgo said many people had called him to complain about the administration’s initial stance.
“We live in a community that the overwhelming majority — it’s not coming from me, it’s coming from constituents — do not believe in protesting of gun control and gun violence," Hidalgo said. "So why are we sending this message?”
Hidalgo replied affirmatively when asked if a similar motion would have been necessary to prevent a walkout in support of gun rights, noting the primary complaints he received concerned the loss of learning time.
“The gun control portion of the argument didn’t come first,” Hidalgo said, describing complaints he had received. “The argument was: 'Why are you taking my kid out of class, for any reason.'”
Reporters covering the Lafayette High demonstration were banned from school grounds, as were about a half-dozen adults who showed up in support. They instead watched from perhaps 10 yards away, on the sidewalk along Congress Street. Students gathered in orderly fashion around the sign on the front lawn, where Breaux sat, and they complied without visible incident when two assistant principals appeared to instruct them to go back inside.
One student addressed her classmates with her back to the sidewalk, drowned out from reporters’ vantage point by traffic on Congress Street. The demonstration lasted about five minutes before it was broken up. Breaux, motioned over by a reporter, lingered to explain why he decided to participate.
“We just don’t want it to happen over here,” Breaux said, referring to school shootings like the one in Florida.