A Ponte Vedra High School senior is claiming the school stifled his political speech on gun control by turning his planned walkout last week into a support forum, while faculty is saying the school simply wanted to remain apolitical and promote a message of unity.
Nick Famularo told the Recorder that students had organized a walkout to join the #Enough national student walkout for gun control on March 14 at 10 a.m., but the protest turned into a politically-benign event instead.
“We were aiming to create this event and get around 200 students in the courtyard from 10 to 10:17 a.m.,” he said, “to not only honor the people who lost their lives in Parkland but also to demand that Congress pass some kind of gun legislation to protect our schools."
After approaching administrators to get their approval, Famularo said school officials organized their own event on the same day called a "support forum" that was "wiped clean of political messaging."
"We were not allowed to bring any politically-charged signs or make any form of political statement," he said. "Instead, it was only to honor the victims and not to demand change or anything like that." (Discussions the Recorder had with other students confirmed this to be true.)
Although Famularo said the school altered his intended walkout, his principal noted that he wasn't aware of the student’s original idea. According to Ponte Vedra principal Fred Oberkehr, the school informed other students that administrators wanted to stay away from politics.
"I sent out an email to the parents," Oberkehr noted, "I sent an email out to the teachers, and I sent out a communication to all the students clearly stating that the event we were going to hold here on the Ponte Vedra High School campus would not be political."
Famularo asserted that removing political messaging from the event was “extremely discouraging.”
"In essence, they did stifle our political voices and told us we weren't allowed to bring that message to the forum," the student said. "They didn't call it a ‘walkout’ anymore because they said instead of us walking out of class, it was more of them walking with us. In my opinion, it was kind of a way to avoid conflict but at the same time they're stifling our voices."
The Ponte Vedra senior did say he appreciated the opportunity to honor the Parkland victims, which was part of his original plan for the walkout.
"Don't get us wrong," he said, "[the event] did line up with half of our original intentions, which was to honor the victims and mourn the losses but at the same time it was meant to demand change and discuss gun control. ... It went from a student-organized and student-led event to something crafted by the administration."
According to Famularo, administrators said they would remove any politically-charged signs relating to gun legislation from the March 14 event, but students were allowed to wear orange to show unity for gun control.
The student said he wanted to honor the Parkland victims in the first half of his planned walkout, then allow student speakers to share their political perspective on gun legislation and urge their peers to contact their representatives.
Oberkehr said students are "free and entitled" to express themselves politically in their personal lives and in other avenues, but last week’s forum, however, was not the right time or place for divisive political issues.
"A school is not a place to have political debates on this particular topic, not on that particular day in my humble opinion," he said. "The most important thing and I think the greatest thing we can do as educators is share a message that we need to be looking out for one another."
Oberkehr added that there are plenty of other forums and places for students to share their political views, such as Washington D.C. and Tallahassee.
According to the principal, students appreciated the forum and "thought the day was a good day." Additionally, Oberkehr noted that he hadn't received any negative feedback "until now" on anything related to last week’s event.
Furthermore, Oberkehr said his students were "terrific" at the event, and he received positive feedback from attendees.
"All in all, it was the right message, and it was the message that needed to be sent," he said. "Not a message of division about how one person may feel about whatever political message it was that he wanted to share. … The purpose of that day in our opinion was not to engage in a political conversation, discussion or position.”