Reston, VA

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

For the second week in a row my column opens with a reference to sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who spoke to the United Nations Climate Action Summit last week after having sailed across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat. Her message was hard hitting. As she had said to a Congressional committee, it was not necessary that she speak for a long period of time for the scientists had already spoken in the numerous reports on climate change that had been written. As a leader who had inspired weekly sit-ins outside the Swedish Parliament resulting in a growing movement of youth climate activists holding their own protests in more than 100 cities worldwide her message was clear to the world leaders: “We will be watching you…How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight!”

Gun violence is an issue about which young people have become increasingly concerned as well. A student who was at the high school in Parkland, Florida, when there was the mass shooting there has been quoted in the Washington Post as saying that “You see these shootings on TV every day and very little happening around it. It’s painful to watch. And I think it’s been really hard for me and many other students and people that we work with to find hope in this time.” Once again, the young people are watching.

Students from the high school in Parkland have formed an organization called March for Our Lives whose very name indicates the seriousness with which they are approaching the issue of gun violence. They have more than 100 chapters nationwide. Their proposed plan to combat gun violence, “A Peace Plan for a Safer America,” goes well beyond the limited measures being debated in the adult world. Their plan creates a national licensing program with a gun registry, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a waiting period for gun purchases, and a mandatory buy-back of assault weapons. Their program may seem extreme to many, but it deserves careful attention for it is written by young people who have the experience of having survived a mass shooting where their friends around them did not survive. Once again, we can expect that these young people and others will be watching what we adults do about this issue if indeed anything is done.

Many years ago I worked in a manufacturing plant in the Shenandoah Valley with a man who as a devout member of the Brethren Church. He would regularly remind me that we should live our lives as though someone is watching us for we could be sure that someone is watching us and observing our ethics, honesty and sincerity. We may be able to talk a good game, but those observing our behavior can learn more about us than we may care for them to know. In the political world these days there is way too much talk and too little action on critical life and death issues. Young people are watching and are calling us out!

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The Fairfax County School Board is considering a plan to grant middle and high school students an excused absence for taking part in protests, rallies and walkouts.

The board’s governance committee discussed the proposal earlier this week. If approved, students would be given one excused absence from school per year to take part in “civic engagement activities by providing prior notification to the school with evidence of a sponsored/organized event or activity,” according to the draft proposal.

In a letter submitted to the board in February, board member Ryan McElveen said county schools enforced inconsistent policies when students organized walkouts in response to recent school shootings. He wrote the following in his proposal to the board:

A year ago, the devastating tragedy in Parkland galvanized students, parents, and citizens around the country to call for an end to gun violence, a powerful movement demanding action by our elected representatives that continues to this day. The Fairfax County School Board amplified this advocacy through our Resolution on Gun Violence Prevention, which became a national model for School Board resolutions around the country. School systems cannot oppose nor endorse any specific calls to action, but they are constitutionally obligated to recognize and uphold the first amendment rights of students choosing to engage in political activities that do not infringe on the rights of others or disrupt the instructional day. While FCPS provided guidance to schools about how to respond to students who wanted to walkout in support of gun violence prevention in 2018, there was inconsistent enforcement of those procedures in schools, including how schools designated excused student absences. I have spoken with many community members who would like clearer policy guidance in the event of future civic engagement activities.

The discussion is expected to continue on October 2.

At a September 4 meeting, board members sought to ensure that the proposal would not interfere with the school system’s efforts to curb chronic absenteeism. The school board is still seeking information on the absenteeism status of the county’s schools, whether or not other school districts have adopted similar proposals and the projected impact of the proposal on absenteeism.

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Local residents involved with Herndon-Reston Indivisible, a local progressive advocacy group that formed after President Donald Trump’s election, protested outside a company that operates shelters for migrant youth.

Roughly 15 residents gathered on Friday, August 2 outside the headquarters of Caliburn International Corp., a for-profit operator of migrant youth shelters and private prisons.

Activists said the protest was intended to “express their dismay over the adverse shelter conditions, Caliburn’s role and the administration’s overall immigration policy.”

Herndon-Reston Indivisible formed to resist the “Trump agenda while electing Democrats who support our values of transparency, inclusion, tolerance and fairness.”

Caliburn is the parent company of Homestead, a federal childrens’ detention center that operates as a for-profit in Florida. Media reports from mainstream news outlets have raised questions about the treatment of children in these temporary shelters.

According to NPR, the average daily cost for caring for a child in these facilities is about $775 per day — much more than the average cost of housing a child at standard shelters.

The Homestead shelter currently holds 2,450 unaccomplanied migrant children between the ages of 13 to 17.

The advocacy organization plans to continue protests at the headquarters of Caliburn every other week.

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In a mix of party and protest, people have gathered for nightly protests outside the White House for three weeks. Acting as the backdrop of the crowd is Herndon-Reston  Indivisible, a community action group that aims to push back against President Donald Trump.

Clad in neon yellow shirts, group members hold brightly lit orange letters spelling out the words “treason,” “puppet” and liar. For the last 23 nights, they’ve gathered at Wiehle-Reston at 6:30 p.m. to join in the protest, called “Kremlin Annex.”

Protests began on July 16 after Trump appeared to agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denied interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Kremlin Annex plans to be there as long as Trump is in office.  On average, seven people from the organization join the nightly protest, according to Joanne Collins, a member of Herndon-Reston Indivisible and co-leader of the group’s elections committee.

Collins says the environment is full of energy. Earlier this week, Rosie O’Donnell, an actress and TV personality who has been vocal against Trump, stood alongside Broadway musicians for the protest.

“It’s kind of like a party. It’s led by a young guy and they have bagpipes and have even had a mariachi band,” she said. “It’s been raining a lot and we’ve attended rain and shine.”

Herndon-Reston Indivisible was formed by Heidi Zollo and Carrie Bruns following the 2016 presidential election. The organization rallies on ten issue groups, including topics like the environment, immigration and election activities.

Photos via Herndon-Reston Indivisible

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Roughly 200 students participated in a walkout on Friday (April 21) at Langston Hughes Middle School (11401 Ridge Heights Road).

The walkout was in honor of the anniversary of 13 victims of the Columbine High School shooting.

Students left the school building at 10 a.m.. Most students re-entered the building and returned to fifth period class while a small group of students remained to continue the walkout.

Below is a message from Langston Hughes Middle School Principal Aimee Monticchio:

FCPS respects the rights of our students to engage in peaceful protest and express their opinions through speech and other ways as long as it is done respectfully, does not interfere with the rights of others, and does not disrupt learning in the school.   Our school is committed to providing an environment where everyone is treated with respect and encouraged to help others.

Our teachers, administrators and staff continue to reinforce a sense of positive school community focused on teaching and learning in our increasingly complex world.  We thank you for your continued partnership in working with your child to discuss meaningful actions that they can take to engage in studies of all issues and participate fully in their community.

Similar walkouts happened at the school on February 21 and on March 14 in order to remember the victims of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

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(This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. with an official count of the participants).

Roughly 800 South Lakes High School students joined their peers from all over the country for a scheduled 17-minute National School Walkout to End Gun Violence at 10 a.m. today (March 14).

Chanting phrases like “Enough is enough,” “We want change,” and “No more silence, end gun violence,” students gathered in the school’s football stadium for the rally. SLHS student Dora Ahearn-wood repeated the names of the 17 victims in the Parkland shooting in a call-and-response pattern.

A moment of silence followed.

The impetus behind the rally was especially real following a lockdown at SLHS and two other Reston public schools on Friday. Local police determined a report about a student with a gun was false.

“The lockdown was a false alarm and everyone was safe. But we should not have to live in a place where we have to see our friends texting and calling their family, terrified for their lives. We should not have to go to school and experience a lockdown because the presence of an active-shooter on campus is a real possibility. We should not have to live in a country where teenagers can have access to weapons of war,” said SLHS student Sophia Liao.

Others like Zach Schonfeld encouraged students to join survivors of the Parkland shooting in the District for the March for Our Lives. Schonfeld also encouraged students to take their grievances to the ballot box by registering to vote, volunteering for a campaign, call Congressional representatives to push for gun control and raise their voices to declare “enough is enough.”

“Whatever you do, don’t sit out on the sidelines and merely add Parkland to the tragic list that has senselessly killed so many. Next time, it could be us,” he said.

Walkout participants were marked for “cutting class” during the walkout, which fell during the third period class, according to SLHS principal Kim Retzer.

“Like any other school day, our teachers will prepare various learning activities to engage students and we expect our students to participate in their learning process. Should students leave class, teachers will continue with their instruction to all students who remain in the classroom,” Retzer wrote in a statement.

Students at other area schools like Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston and Floris Elementary School in Herndon also participated in similar walkouts.

Footage by ABC News linked below mistakenly indicated SLHS students walked off of school grounds. The footage is not from SLHS.

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Pushed by the mass shooting at Florida high school this year, students at South Lakes High School will stage a walkout on Wednesday at 10 a.m., joining more than 2,200 schools nationwide as part of the #Enough National School Walkout to End Gun Violence.

For organizers, the need for the walkout – the second at the high school following the Florida shooting – came to life on Friday when three Reston schools were under a lockdown after students reported they saw another student with a gun. Police determined the report was false.

Students like Sophia Liao, Zachary Schonfeld and Dora Ahearn-Wood said they want legislators to go beyond tweeting thoughts and prayers by passing legislation to prevent gun violence.

“We should feel safe in our schools, and not have to worry if we are next. Just last Friday, we got lucky. The lockdown was quickly found to be a false alarm through the diligent work of school administration and police. But we should not have to live in a place where we have to see our friends texting and calling their families, terrified for their lives. This is not normal, and it needs to change,” Liao said.

The walkout will be the second for South Lakes High School students. Last month, more than 200 students stepped out of class in the middle of the day to remember victims of the Parkland shooting.

On Wednesday, students plan to stand outside for 17 minutes to honor each victim of the shooting. The walkout will also include remarks and chants from student organizers, according to a release by the South Lakes Young Democrats club.

Although the club is organizing the walkout, organizers said participants are from varying political backgrounds and the walkout is a school-wide initiative. Students also plan to initiate a “call to action” by encouraging participants to vote, call their elected representatives and become involved in political discourse.

We might not all be experts on gun policy, but we do know that the current status quo is not working,” organizers said.

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South Lakes High School is emphasizing its security and protest policies after a Florida high school shooting left 17 students and faculty dead.

Kim Retzer, the school’s principal, said the last several days have been “intense as the conversations and actions around school violence have taken place.” Last week, more than 350 students walked out of the school and stood outside midday for 17 minutes.

In response to mixed reactions about the walkout, Retzer said that Fairfax County Public Schools respect students’ rights to engage in peaceful protest and express their opinions, so long as the form of expression is “done respectfully, does not interfere with the rights of others, and does not disrupt learning in the school.”

“Students participating in marches or walkouts are expected to participate in class and to respond to administrative questions and directives in the same way as all other students,” she added.

School policies also encourage teachers to remain in class with students who do not participate in walkouts. Staff can participate during “non-work time,” she said.

The school regularly assesses its safety protocols, staff indicated. Retzer described Dave Bonner, a school resource officer stationed at SLHS as “pro-active”  and “experienced.” Bonner routinely collaborates with the resource officer at the adjacent Hughes Middle School.

The school installed interior and exterior video surveillance several years ago and is in the process of upgrading older equipment.

Retzer expressed support for the feedback and support received by the school in the past week.

“I know I have hugged my child a little tighter in recent days,” she said.

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A Herndon-area resident is organizing a “vigil for peace” to be held tonight after the weekend’s violent protests in Charlottesville.

According to a post on The Action Network website, Suzanne Nordfelt says interested individuals can meet at her home on Treadwell Lane at 7 p.m. for the event.

We are standing in solidarity with Charlottesville. Join us. Come put some positive energy in the universe and hold each other up. Please bring a candle (if you have one) and your walking shoes in the event we decide to parade down Reston Parkway. Wearing white is a plus but completely optional. Please share far and wide. We will meet in my cul-de-sac so there is lots of parking.

Over the weekend in Reston, a small “Stand With Charlottesville” gathering (pictured at top) took place Saturday night. A protest in DC on Sunday drew thousands.

Clashes between far-right “Unite The Right” protesters and counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon resulted in a number of violent altercations. The showdown turned tragic when an alleged white supremacist plowed a car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nearly 20 more. Additionally, a Virginia State Police helicopter responding to the scene crashed, resulting in the deaths of two troopers.

Local, state and national leaders have urged a stop to the hate in the aftermath of the events.

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