A reverent student walkout at Catholic schools


By Peter G. Sánchez and Mary Beth Peabody

Wildwood Catholic students pray for those lost in the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, shooting. South Jersey Catholic high schools observed the student-led National Walkout with prayer services and processions.
Students from Paul VI High School, Haddonfield, hold candles to remember the fallen.
Photo by Mike Walsh
Father Allain Caparas, principal of Saint Joseph High School, Hammonton, leads his community before a prayer service.
Photo by James A. McBride

They sat, stood and walked in silence. They prayed, lit candles, and rang bells. They read names and shared bits of personal information about victims of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

They talked about the need for safety and a hope that lawmakers would make meaningful changes. They spoke of bullying and encouraged each other to rise above it, to be the change.

Led by students and supported by administration, South Jersey Catholic secondary schools found their own way and their own voices for the March 14 National School Walkout.

At Absecon’s Holy Spirit High School, students held a morning prayer service in the school auditorium, lighting candles for each of the fallen and sharing a little background on the 17 lives lost. Afterward, a student-led discussion on creating a healthy and safe school environment took place.

One of the impassioned students sharing her thoughts was junior Lauren Kayes from Mays Landing.

Urging her fellow students to “build each other up,” Kayes said that any conflicts should be resolved face-to-face, instead of behind the scenes on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

“Talk about (the problem), don’t post it,” she said.

Nearly 1,000 students lapped the stadium track in silence at Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, while Student Council leaders remembered the 17 Stoneman Douglas victims. Each name was followed by a tribute, prayer and brief period of silence.

After remembering 15-year-old Peter Wang, a junior ROTC member who was shot while holding the door open for others, the final prayer was the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The procession lasted exactly 17 minutes.

Student Council treasurer Rakeem Shabazz addressed the PVI students before their silent return to classrooms.

“Today, the Paul VI peaceful procession marks our true stand against bullying, verbal violence and hatred. … Today we stand for the lives lost in Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine and the many other tragedies our schools shouldn’t have experienced,” said Rakeem.

He stressed the need for change and said, “Those in office must hear our voices because we need help here and across this country.”

With photos of the Stoneman Douglas victims, students at Wildwood Catholic High School created an outdoor memorial at 17 spots in the school’s neighborhood. They moved from one photo to the next, praying the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer at each.

At Gloucester Catholic and Hammonton’s Saint Joseph high schools, students led processions to nearby churches, where they held memorial prayer services. In Pennsauken, Bishop Eustace juniors led the school community in an outdoor procession on campus and honored in prayer all people who have lost their lives to gun violence. Saint Augustine Prep students in Richland also paid tribute to victims in a campus prayer service.

With seniors away on a class trip during the March 14 walkout, Camden Catholic students have chosen April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, for a school-wide service. Principal Heather Crisci said, “The students are going to work on a ‘kindness’ campaign — how can they get everyone to remember to treat others as Christ would. She also said one of the students’ goals is to “remember that this is a pro-life issue.”

Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Newfield, junior Maria Eaise expressed similar thoughts during the Newfield school’s prayer service.

“Acts of violence, like the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, affect us all and, as high school students, we become connected to these victims,” she said. “As the rising generation, we feel the need to voice our concerns about our future and speak out to help create positive change. We think Parkland should evoke a greater feeling of responsibility among teenagers and a realization that now, more than ever, we need to value and be grateful for life.”