Punished for walkout, Bucks students turned detention into viral gun protest
In what they called "a modern sit-in," the 46 Upper Bucks County students -the first of 225 who defied school officials on March 14's National School Walkout Day - arrived last Saturday carrying placards bearing the names of kids who'd been gunned down in February's Parkland, Fla., massacre, then sat on the floor and locked arms in a silent protest.
If students at Pennridge High School had to serve Saturday detention for walking out of school to protest gun violence after they were told not to, they were determined to make it count.
In what they called "a modern sit-in," the 46 Upper Bucks County students – the first of 225 who defied school officials on March 14's National School Walkout Day – arrived for a two-hour detention Saturday carrying placards bearing the names of kids gunned down in February's Parkland, Fla., massacre, then sat on the floor and locked arms in a silent protest.
Outside the school, it was anything but quiet. About two dozen other students, parents, and supporters waved signs that proclaimed "Enough!" and brought cookies or ordered pizza for the teens. Off to the side were about a half-dozen gun-rights supporters staging a counterprotest, waving an American flag and signs supporting the NRA and President Trump. Police arrived at 8 a.m. to tell protesters to leave school property and move to the street.
"They tell us in announcements every day to be the change you want to see in the world," said Anna Sophie Tinneny, 17, one of the student protest leaders. "And then when we tried to do it, they told us we couldn't. That's hypocrisy of the highest order."
A video of their detention protest went viral – since viewed more than three million times, mostly on Twitter, where it's been re-tweeted more than 32,000 times – and turned the Bucks students, now calling themselves the #Pennridge225, into icons of a growing youth movement going into Saturday's March for Our Lives in Washington.
The national publicity probably wasn't what Pennridge School Board members had in mind when, at a packed meeting right before the March 14 walkout, they rebuffed more than a dozen speakers who urged support for the protest. The opposition was led by two Republican board members – Joan Cullen and Megan Banis Clemens.
Cullen later went on Twitter to write that "it's very important the public know the truly radical, anti-police, anti-U.S. govt. nature" of both the walkout and the Women's March.
But a Parkland survivor – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High freshman Lauren Hogg – tweeted that the Pennridge 225 are "on the right side of history" and called the protest "a modern Breakfast Club," a reference to the 1985 classic John Hughes film about a Saturday morning detention.
The student protests have roiled a community already divided between rural long-timers who shut down school for the start of deer season and newcomers moving into "McMansions" at the northern edge of the Philadelphia exurbs.
Pennridge Superintendent Jacqueline Rattingan and School Board President Christine Yardley, who had been supportive of the walkout at the board meeting, did not respond to emailed questions from the Inquirer and Daily News about the controversy, and Cullen did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
In a letter sent to parents the night after the walkout, Rattingan explained that the detention was for violating school rules about leaving the building, not for expressing political viewpoints. "If today was a test of how our students can express their beliefs in a respectful and orderly fashion," she wrote, "I would give everyone involved an 'A+.' "
"We were so surprised to see this many people come out and support us," said Sean Jenkins, 18, another leader of the Pennridge 225 group. "The Parkland shooting and student activists have really changed the narrative."
Jenkins and other students say they're turning their focus toward registering students to vote in upcoming elections, with plans to continue to turn up the volume for protests at three more scheduled Saturday detentions for nearly 180 kids.
The students and their supporters had planned to protest the mass detentions at a school-safety meeting that the Pennridge board slated for Wednesday night, with the initial intention of discussing post Parkland safety procedures with area police as well as ideas for increasing security. (Many expected the snowstorm to postpone that meeting.)
Privately, many in the community cite the growing political divide that includes Perkasie Borough, which President Trump won with nearly 52 percent of the vote in November 2016. A month later, three new GOP board members gave the Pennridge School Board a 6-3 Republican majority that led opposition to the walkout plan.
"It's a pretty red area," said Anna's mother, Heather McKarron, a native of Philadelphia's Roxborough who moved to Hilltown Township from Ambler 18 years ago. "It's like small-town America with football games" on Friday nights.
McKarron said she believed that School Board members injected partisan politics into the issue and that she was taken aback by the walkout policy. Protest organizers said administrators had preliminarily agreed to let students leave the school for a 17-minute memorial event on the football field. But several board members raised objections and worried the protest might set a precedent.
"They said it was a safety issue because we were soft targets," said Tinneny, one of the student protest leaders. "They would know where we were at a certain time. We're going into and out of school at the same time every day. How is that different?"
Instead, the board backed a student council proposal for a Parkland remembrance event inside the school auditorium. Jenkins, another protest leader, said: "A lot of students and I thought that didn't go far enough, We thought the best way to honor the memory of those kids was to offer solutions so that it doesn't happen again."
The 18-year-old said he was "blown away" when 225 kids walked out of the high school that morning. Organizers said that despite planning on popular social-media platforms like Instagram, they expected only 20 or so to walk out once school officials announced that participants would be punished with the Saturday detentions. Indeed, students returning to school found tables where they signed their names for their impending punishments.
Cullen, the board member, posted several harsh criticisms on Twitter and retweeted a fellow conservative who called the protesters "misinformed Marxist truant peers."
"It's so disheartening to see that from a School Board member," Jenkins responded.
Although leaders of the protest expect another crowd around this coming Saturday's detention, Jenkins won't be there. He and three classmates will be at the Washington March for Our Lives, joining students from Parkland and an expected throng.
Joey Merkel, 17, another founder of the Pennridge 225, said he and his peers would do anything at this point to support the Parkland activists. Although he wants to be an engineer, Joey said the protests have given him a newfound passion for politics.
"At the end" of the walkout, he said, "Sean was telling everyone if we want to make change it was us that has to do it — and to do that we have to vote these people out."