Highland seniors start student outreach campaign in light of Parkland shooting

The Gloucester Township high schoolers have an agenda of initiatives regarding school safety, gun reform and mental health.

Highland High School seniors, Grace Simmons, Daniel Walker, Ummulkhayer Sameha, Maya Sandlin and Priyanka Sanghavi brainstorm initiatives to implement through its the #WeUnite student outreach.

The ping of a triangle instrument resonated along the football field of Highland High School.

But each strike, all 17 of them, echoed across the country around 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, as for 17 minutes, students, not only in Gloucester Township, but around the United States, honored the lives lost in the Parkland, Fla., shooting.

For five Highland seniors — Grace Simmons, Daniel Walker, Ummulkhayer Sameha, Maya Sandlin and Priyanka Sanghavi — this moment of remembrance is merely the start of a series of initiatives aiming to heal a gun violence crisis plaguing the country.

“I just feel like it’s happened so many times, and there’s something that we can do more than just sending thoughts and prayers to the family,” Sameha said. “We can change laws. School safety can be improved, and we can prevent it from happening.”

“It’s not like the other (shootings) weren’t important. They were all important. It’s just that this one gave students the voice,” Walker added. “This one made us realize it’s becoming normalized in our society.”

After the Parkland tragedy, the Gloucester Township residents started forming Highland’s #WeUnite student outreach, which plans to approach the issue through various ways, ranging from the township to federal levels. The students say the movement is Highland’s third installment this year in officially becoming as a No Place For Hate School.

Like most mediums of coalition these days, the group is establishing a presence on social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, using the platforms as a way to spread their thoughts, especially through their own photos and videos.

“With social media, it’s easier to send messages and get the word out. Social media can touch thousands of millions of people all over the world,” Sanghavi said.

The #WeUnite accounts will document the students’ timeline of actions.

On March 24, the students, along with nearly 80 other Highlanders, are venturing to Washington, D.C., to participate in the national March for our Lives Protest. Over the past few weeks, the students helped to organize the trip, giving out permission slips and booking buses. They say they’re working with Principal Lisa Owen in seeking a spot to stop along the protest route.

Parading down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Highland students will carry a colossal banner declaring, “We Unite for Highland,” which students have signed leading up to their D.C. departure.

The five of them led an information meeting to inform their peers on the march’s #NeverAgain movement.

“We just briefed (students) about what the whole march for our lives was about,” Simmons said. “We talked about what we would personally advocate for for gun control, and then, we also said at the end of the day, it isn’t a political issue, but the only way to get change is through a political system.”

After the march, the banner will proudly hang in Highland, along with a mosaics creation of the posters held at the school’s March 14 remembrance day.

Even past the halls of Highland, the students say they plan to join forces with other high schoolers across the Black Horse Regional School District.

“Our goal is to build from bottom up, and our next goal is to go district-wide with the sister schools,” Walker said.

For the students, it’s especially crucial to include the community in this conversation, as they plan to work with Mayor Dave Mayer to organize a similar ceremony at Veterans Park later in the spring. Ideally, they’d like for local state politicians to speak at the event.

“A lot of (safety) prevention measures are really intertwined with our community,” Sandlin said. “And you can’t really have a safe school without a safe community, so we’re definitely trying to make it more of a community thing than just isolating it to schools.”

While #WeUnite intends to ripple across the township and country, the students have been brainstorming solutions specific to their school, like new security measures and mental health treatments.

The students say they’d like to see mental health attention be implemented in their annual physical screenings with the school nurse, as well as more open dialogue about emotions with counselors.

“I feel like it will give people a sense of peace — that this isn’t all there is,” Simmons said. “There is more beyond that. There’s a break to be had at the end of the day of all the tests and applications and SAT scores.”

With graduation growing near, the seniors say they don’t want Highland to lose this momentum of the greater movement. Before moving on to college, they want to be certain underclassmen can resume the #WeUnite campaign, suggesting to include the discussion in freshman seminar classes.

They say change is not going to end with them and their fellow students at Highland, making it especially crucial for this conversation to continue.

“I feel like by us doing this now, we want to leave an impact for them so they can do it, too,” Sameha said.

“They can follow in our footsteps once we leave,” Simmons added.