As thousands of energized students across Philadelphia joined the nationwide protest against gun violence on Wednesday, some on Penn's campus left their desks to make a show of their support.
High school students across the nation organized National School Walkout Day on Mar. 14 in response to the mass shooting that happened on Feb. 14 at Stoneman Douglas High School last month. To show their solidarity, students at Penn Law School staged a walkout at 1:30 p.m., leaving their classes to gather in the Law School courtyard.
Members of the Law School’s American Constitution Society, the group that organized the walkout, gave brief speeches that detailed the issues of gun violence in the United States.
Earlier that day, as other Penn students rushed to their regular classes, many also passed by a crowd of about 150 employees from the Wistar Institute, a private biomedical research institution located within Penn’s campus. These employees had left the lab at 10 a.m. and stood on the sidewalk for 17 minutes as part of the nationwide walkout.
At 8:30 a.m. that morning, Dario Altieri, director and CEO of the Wistar Institute, sent out an email to all of his employees, notifying them that he would be joining the high school students across the country by walking out of the laboratory for 17 minutes.
“I am the father of a sixteen-year old, probably not much different from the students at Stoneman Douglas,” Altieri wrote in the email. “And I will do anything, absolutely anything humanly possible to protect him and his future.”
In the email, Altieri said that his intentions in sending it were “purely personal” — not a reflection of the organization’s views. He made it clear that he was not asking anyone to join him but that all were invited.
Minutes after the email was sent out, numerous administrators replied to the email chain, expressing their intention to walk out alongside Altieri, said Ashani Weeraratna, a professor and co-program leader at Wistar.
“I got so emotional when I watched that because I have a 13 year old daughter and her school had planned a walkout as well,” Weeraratna said. “So, I emailed him back immediately and wrote ‘I’ll be there with you.’
“The emails just started coming through one after the other from all the faculty — from our legal department, from our HR. Everyone was just like ‘We’re With You’, We’re With You', We’re With You’.”
Some employees, like Weeraratna, said that it was the parental aspect of the walkout that inspired them to join.
James Zaleski, the director of facilities at the institute, is a grandfather to two young grandchildren. He also responded immediately to the email saying that his entire department would join in the walkout out as well.
Erica Stone, assistant professor at the institute, said that her memories of seeing school shootings on the news when she was in high school compelled her to take part in the walkout.
“I was in high school when Columbine happened. It was traumatic for me in high school,” Stone said. “I can’t imagine that we are still talking about this, that this is still an issue and how much scarier it must be that it is not rare anymore. That’s really sad.”
In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Altieri said that the walkout was a “truly fantastic experience.”
“Everyone walked out for those seventeen minutes to stand next to the students and their families who suffered through unspeakable horrors,” he said.
At Penn Law, the speakers told their gathered peers, who numbered around 40, to urge their representatives to take action on gun control.
“Like most of the country, [we were] inspired by students’ reactions to the Parkland shooting,” first-year law student Ben Schwartz, one of the organizers of the walkout, said. “There’s really not been a serious policy response to what is really a public health crisis, so we jumped at the opportunity to join the national organizing effort to create that response.”
First-year law student Erik Lampmann, another organizer, said the fact that the current students are “the first generation to go through the lockdown drills since Columbine” put them in a unique position to address gun violence.
“We empathize and want to be in solidarity with other students who are impacted by gun violence,” Lampmann said, adding that law students also have a responsibility to take action.
“As student lawyers [we want] to make sure that we use our skills to end this epidemic of violence and establish policies that make schools, but also society, safer for all,” he continued.
First-year law student and organizer Allison Perlin said that when organizing the walkout, students wanted to make sure it was “student-centered and student-led.”
In the days leading up to the event, the students put posters up around the Law School, made announcements in their classes and online, and reached out to students in other graduate schools to encourage them to join the walkout.
Perlin, Schwartz, and Lampmann, who all spoke at the walkout, are board members the American Constitution Society, which partnered with Ceasefire PA, a local grassroots organization focused on gun violence prevention, for the walkout. Representatives from Ceasefire PA were tabling at the walkout.
After the student speeches, the gathered crowd chanted "Never Again" — the hashtag that arose after the Parkland shooting — three times, growing louder each time.
Schwartz said that while the Parkland shooting and other mass shootings were the catalyst for the national school walkout, the organizers wanted to make sure that other forms of gun violence, such as everyday shootings and accidental shootings, were also brought to attention.
“We’re really cognizant of the fact that the primary toll of gun violence is everyday shootings and that a disproportionate share of that falls on communities of color,” Schwartz said. “That’s another part of this that we’re pushing and thinking about.”
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