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'It's so much more than just a walkout'

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The student group “United Voices” meets immediately after school every Tuesday and Thursday. Their goal is to use love, compassion, understanding and speaking out to take a stand against bullying, loneliness, and the stigma around mental illness.
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New Castle Community School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Matt Shoemaker, right, attends Thursday’s meeting of the United Voices student group. United Voices will talk to the NCCSC school board Monday to discuss their upcoming April 20 demonstration.

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

In the 1950s, American students did “duck and cover” drills so they could be ready if the Russians attacked with an atomic bomb.

Children today practice how they are supposed to keep hidden and quiet if someone starts shooting inside a school.

An entire generation of America’s children have grown up in a world where school shootings are a real fear.

“We’ve never known anything else,” said New Castle High School junior Joplin Clements. “This is the norm for us.”

Clements is part of a group of NCHS students who want to do more than just talk about the guns used in school shootings.

The student-led “United Voices” will conduct a silent demonstration April 20 in the New Castle Fieldhouse to honor students and teachers who lost their lives to school violence.

April 20 is the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

United Voices grew from conversations that NCHS students wanted to have immediately after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida.

NCHS Spanish teacher Barbara Sorrell opened her classroom up to the teens after school Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Sorrell saw a heavy weight on her students’ hearts following the Florida shooting.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Sorrell said. “There’s no reason, no logic behind some of this stuff, but it’s important to start the conversation, to continue the conversation.”

Massacres like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have prompted students across the country to stage walkouts in protest of current gun laws.

The United Voices student group realized that these tragedies are about more than just guns; they are often the end result of loneliness, bullying and mental illness.

Sometimes, victims of bullying or kids who are struggling with depression turn the violence on themselves and take their own life.

United Voices hopes to make a long lasting difference in the local community by fighting fire with love, compassion and understanding.

“If we can prevent one kid from sitting alone at lunch, I feel like we would have accomplished something, helping someone not feel so lonely,” senior Maggie Benninger said. “I just want us to become closer as a community, as a school, everybody.”

Senior Gabi Sorrell, daughter of teacher Barbara Sorrell, agreed that recent events may have started the discussions, but the underlying message is one of unity.

The teen Sorrell and other members of United Voices met with NCHS Principal Chris Walker when they first realized that they wanted to do something to raise awareness among the student body.

Superintendent Dr. Matt Shoemaker attended the United Voices meeting Thursday to hear what the young adults plan to do here in New Castle to hopefully prevent another tragic event like the ones that have affected other communities.

Before coming to New Castle, Shoemaker was a superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, about 20 miles away from the school that was attacked in February.

Shoemaker likes that United Voices is taking a stand against bullying and loneliness. This can help keep other students from feeling disenfranchised, the superintendent said.

“You’re taking a stand... you’re doing something positive to help other people,” Shoemaker said. “That’s really a positive approach to this and it’s solution-based.”

The students of United Voices plan to honor students and teachers who have been killed by school shooters or who have taken the own lives by leading a silent march through the halls of New Castle High School and through the Fieldhouse April 20.

The event will be somber and respectful, Gabi Sorrell said. Students who don’t want to participate or who don’t understand how to take the subject seriously can stay in their classrooms, Sorrell said.

“It’s not a joke,” Sorrell said.

United Voices is planning to show their classmates the true cost of the violence that has been happening in America’s schools for more than two decades.

They hope to turn the names and statistics of the shooting victims into real people for the New Castle students.

“We’re not just sitting here kind of hoping things are going to change. We’re doing something about it,” Clements said. “It’s not about political view anymore.”

The United Voices demonstration is a student-led event. Shoemaker even suggested that one of the United Voices students be the one to dismiss classes during the planned demonstration, a job that would normally fall to school principal Chris Walker.

Students from United Voices plan to visit each classroom in the weeks leading up to April 20 to help the students and teachers understand how the demonstration will work and the expectations of students taking part in it.

Shoemaker said the school is going to respect their students’ First Amendment rights. It’s also the school’s job to protect everyone in the building, he said.

NCHS Lead School Resource Officer (SRO) and New Castle Police Department Captain Jim Nicholson attended the United Voices meeting Thursday to add comments about school safety during the planned demonstration.

Nicholson said there will be New Castle police officers, both in uniform and in plain clothes, during the event.

“We don’t want to make a big presence,” Nicholson said. “We want this moment to be for the remembrance.”

Because the demonstration is happening inside the school buildings during a school day, the school administrators are asking members of the general public not interfere with or try participate in the demonstration.

Anyone who has questions about the planned demonstration can contact Walker at 765-593-6670.

To keep up with United Voices activities, find the group on Snapchat, @UnitedVoices, or on Twitter and Instagram, @united__voices (with two underscores).