PORTLAND — So what do you do when you are almost 15?
Well, you could spend an inordinate amount of time on social media. You could hang out with your friends. You could go to school and work part time. Or … you could be an activist.
Sadie Johnson-Ouillette, 14, of Norway, chose to be an activist.
She and her friend Elizabeth Livak led the organization of the recent “walkout” at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
The event was a 17-minute student walkout to honor the 17 killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida and call attention to school safety.
It was followed by a second “walkout” for an additional 17 minutes by a small group protesting a lack of gun control.
So what is it like to be a young teen and venture into activism?
Well, this wasn’t, in fact, the 14-year-old’s first foray into activism.
Her first was when she was nine.
“When I was around eight or nine,” she says, “we had a playground around here [Munjoy Hill in Portland] called the Miranda Adams School playground. It was across the street from my old apartment and I used to go a lot with my friends. They were going to tear down the school – they did and now it’s condos – and redo the playground.
“They were going to tear down the monkey bars and we really like them. My friend Natasha and I didn’t want them to do that so we made and put up posters, sent emails to the company that was doing it and went to meetings. She says she thinks the meetings were being held because they had “caused such a ruckus.”
Their campaign was called simply “Save the Monkey-Bars.”
“The monkey bars are still there … in bad shape but still there.”
In a 2012 story in the Portland Press Herald, then Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance was reported as saying “The issue is bigger than children’s attachment to some playground equipment. It’s part of a philosophical debate — citywide and nationally — about the value of traditional playground equipment relative to the more minimalist approach of “natural play spaces.”
In many ways, Johnson-Ouillette’s recent foray into activism is for a similar philosophical debate — citywide and nationally — about the value of school safety and children’s lives.
At least she thinks so.
She says she has always “kind of stood up for various causes even if [she didn’t] actively participate.”
“If I hear something I don’t agree with I will say something … I’ve been this way all my life but recently [it’s] surfaced and along the way I have collected facts about things so now I have facts to back me up.”
Her parents support her, she says. Her dad is a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and runs a film/video/photography company. Her mom in social work and her stepfather is a school counselor.
Johnson-Ouillette says she heard the news about Parkland and that students had been creating walkouts in schools for school safety and because she felt passionate about school safety, she did some research and found there was a national movement.
“I emailed the principal [Ted Moccia] and said something along the lines of ‘we should all be safe in our schools and there’s walkouts [planned] across the country … we should do this.’
“He emailed back that ‘yes, I think we should be safe, let’s have a meeting next week.’
“So Liz and I had a meeting with Mr. Moccia and Ms. McLean [Nancy McClean-Morrissette, district guidance director]. Mr. Moccia suggested a meeting with the student council so we did and we talked about it. There were a lot of different opinions.
“The administration said ‘we won’t support or not support, just make sure you are safe and if you stick to only 17 minutes on March 14 there will be no punishment but only if you stick to that,'” she recalls.
“Student concerns,” she says, included the thought that the walkout was “anti-gun” and, ironically, the fact that “if the administration said there would be no punishment was it really living up to the essence of a walkout?”
So Johnson-Ouillette, Livak and about 15 others organized the 17-minute remembrance/school safety walkout.
“The first 17 minutes were purely to honor the lives that were lost in Parkland and promote school safety.”
“Some students wanted to address the gun violence issue so it evolved into two [walkouts] the first for safety and, to avoid conflict and keep them completely separate, some students said they would stay out longer [to address gun violence].”
Johnson-Ouillette stayed out longer but, she says, did not “voice” any opinions. The second, much smaller group, was vocal about being anti gun and NRA waving signs and chanting.
“The school knew [about the second demonstration] and told us if we stayed out longer it would be considered skipping class and appropriate punishment [would be levied].
However, all was not rosy.
Johnson-Ouillette, Livak and others received threats via social media, Snapchat and in person both before the walkout and after.
She says these were brought to the administration which dealt with them. The threats, she says, came from both students and adults.
This [the threats] made the administrations’ insistence that the walkout remain in the bus loop surrounded by police protection make sense, she says.
Following the walkout, there was a backlash on social media, especially Facebook.
The girls were called out by adults in the community and, at times, downright bullied.
Posts that began as commentary on the walkout devolved into arguments about who “owns” the students (parents of the school) and abortion. Most strings digressed into adults sparring with each other and, occasionally, students sparring with other students.
Johnson-Ouillette and Livak responded maturely with reasoned answers to questions, refusing to go into detail with regard to threats and suggested that if anyone had specific questions or concerns they email them directly.
“No one emailed,” Johnson-Ouillette says in amazement, “not one!”
“At first it [the backlash] brought me down … what people were saying about me personally. I tried to ignore it.”
The thing is, she says, that it isn’s safe at OHCHS … or any school.
“Seeing Parkland and others even though they were far away you can see a lot of similarities in the schools and it brings it home and you realize it could happen to you.”
She is frank in that she’s not an authority on school safety and doesn’t have all the answers.
“Maybe be stricter on who can enter the building?”
She admits, however, that too much security can make [students] feel less safe.
“I think the administration is responsible for keeping us safe. Students can take measures like don’t bring weapons to school and if you see something say something … even if you are not completely sure it’s true [what you heard or saw] it is better to be safe and say something to administration.”
One of the threats she mentioned had to do with a student who said they could go out and get the gun in their truck in the school parking lot.
She says she was expecting some pushback and probably got no more and no less than expected but “it is easier to think about in theory than [to] experience.”
But, she says, she would do it again.
“I think I have a tougher shell … I hope so.
Her attitude about gun control is moderate.
“I think there can be gun control that isn’t extreme. It might help to maybe raise the age [to purchase guns] and everyone should have background checks. I know it won’t stop people from getting guns but I do think if we make it a little harder to get them (assault rifles) it’s worth the effort.
With regard to the walk up not out idea her response is “I think we should do that [walk up] every day.”
It is how she lives her life.
Sadie Johnson-Ouillette is no longer attending OHCHS and living in Norway. She is currently living with her dad in Portland and keeping up with her classes remotely while she seeks online learning options. Elizabeth Livak was unavailable to be interviewed.