Students at McKeel Academy say administrators warned of punishment for leaving class
LAKELAND, Fla. — Students at McKeel Academy of Technology are accusing school administrators of a heavy-handed attempt to block their participation in the nationwide walkout Wednesday morning to honor victims of last month’s massacre in Parkland.
Katie Gallo, a junior who led plans for the activity, said she met with administrators Monday and told them that she and other students planned to walk out at 10 a.m., the time set for simultaneous walkouts throughout the nation. Gallo said Principal Joyce Powell didn’t seem to understand the purpose of the walkout and said any students who left class would be punished.
Students across the country planned to spend 17 minutes out of school for each of the 17 people killed at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Feb. 14 attack.
Gallo said the administration instead hastily arranged an assembly in front of the school Wednesday morning at 8:30. During that event, Gallo told the principal she and about 15 others still planned to leave class at 10 a.m.
When she and other students left class and walked toward the front of the Lakeland school, they found the doors were locked, Gallo said. Soon after that, a fire alarm went off, but teachers told students not to leave class until they received clearance by an announcement.
“Nobody knew they were doing that,” Gallo said. “Apparently (the administration) sent an email to teachers saying we were having a fire drill, and they told the teachers, ‘You need to hold your kids and then let them out.’”
A few minutes later, all students were ushered to a back exit. Students then noticed a news helicopter hovering above campus, leaving some to wonder whether they were part of a media stunt.
The Ledger made requests to Powell and to McKeel’s director of schools, Alan Black, Wednesday but received no response. McKeel Academy, which receives public funding, is part of a network of charter schools within the Polk County School District and is overseen by its own board of directors.
Powell sent an email to parents of McKeel students Wednesday afternoon that a parent posted on Facebook. In the message, Powell said “considerable misinformation” was circulating on social media.
Powell said administrators decided to hold an event at 8:30 a.m. to remember the Douglas High victims. She said the school “wanted to provide extra coverage for this event” and partnered with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to have a deputy present.
“Nobody else in the country met at 8:30 in the morning, and part of the idea to do this was to be unified with other students, to make us feel we have a voice,” Gallo said. “With some of us not being able to vote, it’s important to get ourselves heard.”
Asha Zuniga, a junior at McKeel, said school doesn’t start until 8:45 a.m., and many students had not yet arrived when the school’s assembly began.
Powell’s email said some students came to administrators to ask about taking part in the national walkout, and “no students were encouraged to participate nor discouraged to participate.”
In the note, Powell said the school is required to conduct an evacuation drill once a month. She said the school simulated a fire at the front of the school, requiring students to exit out the back.
Powell also said the school did not contact any media outlets and that the presence of the news helicopter was strictly a coincidence.
“They sent out that email, covering their tracks,” said Reagan Craig, a sophomore. “That was the only thing they ever sent to us. Because of the email, a lot of people are even more angry because they’re not really explaining what happened today.”
All the students who spoke to The Ledger refuted Powell’s suggestion that administrators neither encouraged nor discouraged participation in the walkout. They said an announcement Tuesday afternoon emphasized that any students who walked out would face detention or stronger discipline.
“I’m absolutely furious, personally, and a lot of my fellow peers are as well,” said Emily Susarchik, a sophomore. “We feel we were silenced, and anybody who did not want to participate in the protest might have felt forced because of the timing. I feel everybody has a right to participate in the protest or not, and everybody was forced to. I’m very upset.”
Gallo said she and other students walked out at 10 a.m., gathered together and held signs. But she said the chaotic atmosphere of the fire drill undermined their efforts.
“Many students realized what was going on immediately because it was not a coincidence at that point,” Gallo said. “A lot of students were really angry. Some didn’t necessarily support what we were doing and were mad they were forced to walk out.”
Zuniga said she considered joining the planned walkout but decided not to do so after hearing the warning from school administrators. She said others who might have taken part were discouraged from doing so by the school’s announcement.
Craig said the school usually holds its fire drill at the end of the month. She said the timing of the drill created anxiety for some students, who were aware that school shooters, including the Parkland assailant, often pull fire alarms to draw students out of classrooms before their attacks.
“A lot of kids were scared maybe an active shooter would come in and hurt them because they knew the walkout was coming,” Craig said.
Susarchik echoed that point.
“I think the way they organized this was insensitive and disgusting and I know it did scare a lot of students, seeing as though a month ago the events occurred at (Douglas High) with the fire alarm being pulled,” she said.
Josiah Chestnut, a sophomore, said he felt manipulated by the administration into appearing to participate in the national walkout. Chestnut said he had not planned to leave class at 10.
“I don’t necessarily support the cause, but I also don’t agree with how McKeel tried to silence the students by telling them they weren’t allowed to do it,” Chestnut said. “That’s the main topic all throughout school, and almost every student is outraged, whether they participated or not. We’re just angry McKeel would pull this sort of thing.”
Grady Daniels, a senior at the International Baccalaureate School in Bartow, said he called Powell on Monday hoping to change her mind. He said Powell was dismissive.
“She was not willing to hear it,” Daniels said.
Daniels said that Powell told him McKeel follows its own board of directors, not any rules set by the Polk County School District.
Gary White is a reporter for The Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger.