Wednesday, October 4, 2023

‘Wake-up call’: Murfreesboro high school student organizes walkout, administration views protest as potential safety risk


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Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines 

While ideas such as first dates, making grades and watching TV may usually be at the forefront of any given highschooler’s mind, one unusual thought has made its way to thousands of young adults in America: guns. For Blackman High School sophomore Valentino Damico, 16, that thought isn’t leaving anytime soon.

The walkout

Damico, like many young activists around the country, is organizing a walkout that will take place during the school day on Wednesday, March 14. He hopes that the group he is pulling together will be enough to make a statement about the current state of gun legislation and violence to America’s lawmakers.

“I believe we have too many lawmakers who were born in the ’50s and ’60s, and, right now, with our millennium growing and turning into adults, their rules from back then need to be changed,” Damico said. “The government needs to change … I don’t want to make it sound rude, but the old people need to go. We need younger people in those offices. And, to get there, we need to show that the younger people are not going to stand by and let their community be put down.”

The group that will be participating in the walkout, mostly Damico’s friends and acquaintances, will be walking out of the school, meeting up with their parents outside and will be holding handmade protest signs for the remainder of the school day.

“All of our hopes are that those lawmakers are watching us and seeing us rebel,” Damico said. “We don’t like what they’re doing. Our hopes are that they do change. We don’t know if they are seeing (the protests) or choosing to ignore them. However, we are doing our best, and I can tell everyone is doing their best to get these laws changed and get people to recognize that this is not okay.”

Damico said that, in addition to the lawmakers in Washington, he hopes that the administration and students at Blackman pay close attention to the walkout.

“I know that Blackman believes that they take pride in their students, and I know they believe they take the utmost care,” Damico said. “But they have been lacking lately, as have most schools in the country. I believe this (walkout) will be a wake-up call.”

Administrative pushback 

While Damico’s protest is entirely nonviolent, Murfreesboro school administrators have voiced concerns in regards to the protest.

According to Damico, a group of Blackman administrative staff, including Blackman High School Principal Leisa Justus, pulled Damico’s walkout group into the main office to ward them away from performing the protest. Damico stated that he was told the walkout would be “unsafe.”

“I don’t think that they think (it’s unsafe),” Damico said. “I think they used that as an intimidation tactic, a fear tactic … There have been a lot of comments against the walkout. I know several people are not in favor of it. There are some students who don’t think it’s a good idea, as well as some faculty. I really don’t know why they would be adverse to the walkout because it’s something to support the victims and show solidarity with the survivors.”

Damico said that Justus suggested “safer” protest campaigns, such as 17 minutes of silence in an auditorium and letter-writing to politicians.

“You can’t keep 2,000 plus students quiet for 17 minutes and keep them organized,” Damico said. “All the government is going to do is throw those (letters) away, and what we should be doing is taking action, instead of twiddling our thumbs in silence.”

Justus stated that the school is doing everything it can to work with the students who are interested in protesting.

“We are working with several students who are interested in doing something, and we absolutely support them voicing their desire for action,” Justus told Sidelines.

Despite claims from Justus, Damico felt that his concerns fell on deaf ears during last week’s meeting.

“Obviously being in a room that small, they could hear what I was saying and they could hear what the other students were saying, but I don’t think they were listening,” Damico said. “What they wanted to do was gather a group of students, tell us why they think the walkout is unsafe, tell us why they think it’s an ‘attack’ on the administration and proceed to tell us why we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Justus declined to comment on the potential safety risks of the walkout and instead directed Sidelines to speak with Rutherford County Schools Communications Coordinator James Evans.

“Our number one priority is maintaining secure campuses and student safety,” Evans said. “We are concerned that if we have some type of massive outdoor walkout at a very specific, designated time, it puts students at risk for those in the community at large who may want to harm them. You’re basically announcing to all the people in the public, ‘All the kids are going to be outside at this time and this date.’ From a security perspective, that is a very difficult environment to secure.”

Evans said that walkouts in any Rutherford County school may lead to disciplinary action against students. However, Damico stated that, in case the administration attempts to take any disciplinary action against the students involved in the walkout, he will be in contact with the local American Civil Liberties Union affiliate.

National perspective 

Since the beginning of 2018, three months ago, there have been seven incidents in which firearm attacks occurred at schools across the country during school hours. Five of these incidents resulted in injuries or deaths. The most recent mass incident occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. The shooting, conducted by former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, resulted in the deaths of 17 people, the injuries of 14 others and the spurring of action from students like Damico.

“Not only should the gun laws be changed, but people need to be educated,” Damico said. “They don’t teach gun safety in school, for the obvious reason, but I do think that there needs to be some level of education because there are too many angry people in the world who don’t know enough about these weapons … Not only do adults need to know but children too … I’m not saying to place a gun in a child’s hand, but, at least, teach them.”

Since the mass shooting in Parkland, some politicians and citizens have been rallying behind the idea that teachers should be armed in order to better protect their students. Recently, President Donald Trump displayed his support of the idea via Twitter, saying that the provision of arming teachers would completely stop shootings and that teachers who participate should get a “yearly bonus.”

Damico, after reflecting on the Parkland shooting, does not agree with the president’s assessment of the issue.

“There was a report on the Parkland shooting where the SRO got into a position where he could’ve taken a shot at Nicolas, and he chose not to take that shot,” Damico said. “Those teachers’ jobs depend on the students. They revolve around the students’ lives. How do you expect them to shoot another kid, even if they’re hurting somebody? If an SRO isn’t able to shoot him, why would a teacher, who is not trained, be able to?”

Unlike many school shootings before it, the mass shooting in Parkland led to an outpouring of social media videos from students who were trapped inside the school during the incident. Damico said that, in a way, it is important for the public to see what really happened.

“For the people that weren’t there, who could never experience the kind of pain that the students felt, I think it is important to watch those videos,” Damico said.

While many other school shootings have been widely documented in public years, Damico stated that the conversation surrounding the Parkland shooting will not be dissipating anytime soon.

“2018 is the year where everything has gone to hell,” Damico said. “It’s easier to get guns in this day and age. It’s easier to get weapons of war. I think that this last one scared people so bad that they just couldn’t handle the fear anymore, and they shouldn’t be able to just toss it aside.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email

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  1. Blackman administrators have advised they “will not allow students to participate in a walkout”. Their plan is to take students to the auditorium and prevent them from leaving. Over the past week, the administrators have pushed the fear agenda. They have suggested we are bad parents for making our children targets by supporting a timed walkout. Blackman administrators are not concerned with the safety of every child. My son is an example of that. Leisa Justus turned a blind eye when he had a soda can thrown at his head by a table of football players last fall. She turns her back on every LGBTQIA student when she refuses to allow a GSA chapter at Blackman by citing its “divisive” nature. She ignores the safety of every LGBTQIA student every time she ignores abusive rhetoric shouted down her halls by hereditary bigots. She was not concerned with my son’s safety or wellbeing when she attempted to force him to discuss his gender identity in a room full of students with whom he does not associate. I fear the lunatic with a gun as much as any parent. But please don’t forget the threat lying in wait inside the halls of our children’s place of learning.


  2. I agree with this student 100%. The administrators of this school need to realize that “17 minutes of silence” or “writing to the politicians” is not going to make the problem go away. There have been far too many school shootings in this country and if the adults and politicians refuse to do anything about it then it is clearly up to our children to make their voices heard. The adults are so afraid their guns will be taken away. The politicians are fearful of losing their monetary funding from the NRA. The only these kids are afraid of is losing their lives while trying to get a education and their lives trump the right for a civilian to own a military gun and the politicians to gain monetary value to allow it to continue. You go guys!! Let your voices be heard!! Don’t allow any one to silence you!! The silence has lasted long enough.

  3. I, too, stand with your son, Annie (Lishiana Damico)…100%. Valentino, when I started teaching in 1969, the first year of desegregation in that school system in SE Alabama, we were receiving seven black students; yes, 7! I requested all seven, volunteering to form a model racially mixed classroom, that other teachers could observe, in an effort to show that there was nothing to fear.

    The administrator’s response was, “Naw; we gotta divide ‘em up, three, three, and one…so they can’t team up!”

    Keep striving for what you believe to be right and just! You have a lot of support from this seventy-year-old retired educator! (Age doesn’t always have to matter either!

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