Local high school students organize downtown march

Students protest gun violence at March for Our Lives

The event was planned and powered by local students calling for gun legislation reform.
Published: March 24, 2018 | Updated: April 23rd, 2018 at 10:57 am
High school students
Taylor Herne (left) and Lily Byrne were haunted by the messages that their classmates sent when their school went into lockdown. No one was hurt, but the mental scars remain.

Columbine. Sandy Hook. Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Three schools, three massacres where the majority of victims were kids.

That reality fueled Saturday’s March for Our Lives protests, across the nation and here, in Syracuse, where local high school students planned and led the march. It drew about 1,200 people, including students of all ages.

Aishwarya Varakantam, one of the event’s organizers, is a junior at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. The team who planned the march expected just 300 people.

“We started off really small, just making a Facebook page,” Varakantam said. “After that, when we saw that so many people had an interest, we contacted local organizations, and then we got into contact and we started planning the march.”

Grace Vandermolen, a senior at Jamesville-DeWitt High School, volunteered at a sign-making station before the march. Protest signs can be the most memorable part of a demonstration, she said.

“We’re trying to make it available for anyone who doesn’t have a sign to speak their voice,” Vandermolen said. “I feel like when pictures get captured, I feel like that’s what sticks. I think our voices are important, too, but this can last longer and we can keep it going.”

Students of all ages participated in the demonstration, including Cy Lurie, Charlie Prior and Amie Harper, fifth graders at Cazenovia Middle School. They said that while they might not be old enough to vote yet, they have a right to be heard.

“We’re the ones that should speak up,” Lurie said. “I don’t think civilians should be armed with assault rifles and I think there should be better background checks. When the Constitution was made, they only had muskets.”

Caleb Porter, a sophomore at Jamesville-DeWitt High School, believes that students must demand reform because they are so often impacted by gun violence.

“I think it’s important that we’re leading the way with making change in this country,” Porter said. “I’m hoping for either John Katko to change his stance on gun legislation or for people to elect someone new, like Dana Balter, who can enact the legislation that will make our schools safer.”

Katko is the Republican congressman representing Syracuse who has taken campaign donations from the NRA and has received an ‘A’ rating from the association. He announced earlier this month that he wants to establish a federal commission to investigate mass shootings. Balter, a visiting professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, will likely be Katko’s Democratic opponent in November.

Taylor Herne and Lily Byrne, two Cayuga County high school students, brought some of the more popular protest signs. Herne’s featured the slogan, “I should be writing my college essay, not my will.” Byrne’s read that assault weapons are easier to buy than Kinder Eggs, which were banned in the United States until 2017.

“We’re out here to try and gain attention to get more reform, because the way that gun laws and gun restrictions are now, anyone can get one,” Herne said. “I think that’s ridiculous.”

Charlie Prior, another fifth-grade student from Cazenovia Middle School, spoke about people who discount the power of students.

“I want things to change,” Prior said. “People notice that even us, the ones they don’t expect to talk, are the ones talking.”

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is a contributor to The NewsHouse at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.