13-year-old student organizer hopes 'Congress people will see we’re in solidarity’

Sanari Ismail

Sanari Ismail

GUILDERLAND — At age 12, Sanari Ismail formed the Student Interfaith Justice League at Farnsworth Middle School. At 13, she set in motion a walkout for Wednesday so that her school could join the hundreds across the state and the thousands of schools across the nation.

Most of the student-led protests were at high schools, not middle schools.

Sanari started the league when she was in seventh grade “to get students of different faiths together to do good in the community and to talk about issues in society,” she said. The league has 15 members and includes Muslims like herself, Hindus, and Christians, she said. Sanari is its president.

She first learned about the March 14 walkout through social media, on the Women’s March page. Although she said her parents are wary of too much use of social media, sometimes it’s useful.

When she saw the post, Sanari said, she thought to herself, “My school should really do this.”

The national walkout was set to be exactly one month from the date of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died. The walkout started at 10 a.m. and lasted 17 minutes, one minute for each of the victims.

Sanari said she is passionate about school safety. She said of the recent shooting, “It could happen at my school. It’s scary. We should feel safe.” She went on to say of Farnsworth, “My school, thank God, has good security. Students in other places might not feel so safe.”

Sanari started planning the walkout by emailing her school principal, Michael Laster, in mid-February.

“She reached out to me over break,” said Laster. “I said, ‘Let’s hear what you want to plan … Let’s bring student government into this.’”

Eventually, Sanari and the president of the student council, Paige Miller, met with Laster. “We discussed it for an hour and a half,” recalled Sanari. “We came to a plan … He wanted to support us,” she said of Laster. “He was concerned about the safety of students outside.”

In addition to Paige, Sanari said, “There are a lot of people who worked on this.”

The agreed-upon plan was to have students who wished to join the protest walk out of the school, to the back, where it was safer, at 9:50 a.m. on March 14. Marie Wiles, the superintendent of schools, who had outlined the plans for the high school walkout at a school board meeting last week, didn’t think at that time there were plans for the middle school.

On Monday, she sent a letter to parents, explaining both the high school and middle school would have ceremonies for students who wanted to participate. In each, 17 balloons would be released, one for each victim, and a moment of silence observed.

“In both schools, participation in this activity is optional … The district is neither encouraging nor discouraging participation in this student-led event,” Wiles wote. She also noted that police would “have a strong presence” and that no student would be permitted to leave campus.

The students at both schools, Wiles wrote, “have wisely steered clear of controversial positions and they have appropriately honored their peers’ choice to participate or not.” She concluded, “They have, nonetheless, put together a plan that captures their heartfelt sympathy for the loss of life in Parkland, Florida, and their sincere concern for their own safety and the safety of all children in our nation’s schools.”

Wiles told The Enterprise on Wednesday that the campus was closed during the demonstration, with no outsiders including press allowed, for the safety of the students. “The balance we’re trying to make is supporting student voices with our strong concern for safety, particularly at the middle school,” she said, because of the age of the students, who are typically 11, 12, or 13 years old.

The night before the walkout, Sanari said she’d seen a lot of posts on social media from Farnsworth students who planned to walk out. “I’m hoping for 100,” she said, estimating her school has nearly 1,200 students.

After the event on Wednesday, Laster estimated 400 to 500 of the school’s roughly 1,160 students participated. The others remained in their classrooms.

“It was a silent ceremony,” said Laster, noting that students put away their cell phones out of respect for the victims.

“It was a great learning opportunity, applying citizenship lessons,” the principal said. “I’m always encouraging students to be actively engaged as citizens.”

Ahead of time, members the interfaith league made signs that said “#Never Again” and “#Enough” to hold during the walkout, Sanari said, and 17 students were selected to each read the name of one of the victims and release a balloon.

Sanari chose to say the name of Joaquin Oliver. “I read about him on CNN,” she said. “He reminded me of myself in ways. He cared about other people. He was interested in art. He played soccer. He was just a normal kid.”

Asked what she wanted to come from the protest, Sanari said, “I’m hoping more students will be able to voice concerns if they have them, and contact the principal.” She went on, “Because it’s national, Congress people will see, we’re in solidarity.”

Asked what she hoped Congress would do, Sanari said, “Personally, I would want to see more gun-control laws passed. And I would like to see more help for people with mental-health problems — reaching out to students and showing that they’re not alone.”

Updated on March 14, 2018: Comments by Michael Laster were added after the walkout took place.

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