Story by Natalie Pate, Lauren Hernandez, Connor Radnovich and Anna Reed | Read the original at www.StatesmanJournal.com
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, thousands of Salem-Keizer students walked out of class to protest gun violence, calling on state and national leaders to bring change soon.
They demonstrated for 17 minutes — one minute for every life lost in the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Starting in the East, similar rallies spread across the various time zones, coast to coast.
Outside the White House, students hoisted “Stand United” signs and chanted “‘Hey, hey, ho, ho — the NRA has got to go.” In other cities, the teenagers read aloud the names of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High victims in somber tributes.
“School is supposed to be a sanctuary, a safe place to learn, grow and reach (our) potential,” said Taylor McCarrell, a student at West Salem High School. “This was stripped from all of us … (who) now come to school fearful of what the day might end up like.
“We shouldn’t have to feel unsafe … while trying to get an education.”
Students from more than a dozen Salem-Keizer Public Schools organized protests, including both middle and high schools.
About 100 Leslie Middle School students gathering on the Oregon Capitol steps just before noon. They chanted, “No more guns,” “Keep us safe,” “Let’s make a difference,” and “I don’t know but I’ve been told; gun violence is getting old.”
Many students in the area also plan to participate in the national March for Our Lives events on March 24.
Read more: Dog dies on United Airlines flight after being stowed in overhead bin | Hey kids, it’s time to train for Awesome 3000 | The eight hottest teams of the 2018 NCAA tournament poised to go deep on March Madness runs
West Salem High School
McCarrell, a junior at West, stood with approximately 200 of her peers under the school’s flagpole.
“To all the adults that try to push our voices into submission and unfairly judge us,” she said in her speech, “we are not selfish, we are not ignorant, we are not too young to understand what is actually going on … and we are not just kids.”
After McCarrell addressed the mass of students, the crowd observed about seven minutes of silence to mourn the lives lost in Parkland.
Salem-Keizer district officials supported students’ rights to protest but told families that teachers will be taking attendance before and after. Students will receive an unexcused absence if they miss any time outside the protest.
School staff supervised both students participating in the walkouts and those who chose to remain in class, with the day’s lessons continuing.
Message from the superintendent: District informs parents ahead of student-led walkouts
Some parents also attended the walkouts, with a few at West Salem holding signs of support. One read, “This mom supports our students. Keep them safe.”
Other parents voiced concerns, especially for the students who did not want to participate.
One parent testified at the district’s monthly board meeting Tuesday night, asking if the district would give students the same “support” if the walkout was for a different cause. He gave the example of an annual pro-life rally.
Adam Stephens Middle School
At Stephens Middle School in Salem, an estimated 900 students rallied inside the school gymnasium before walking out to the back of the school and marching around the track.
“Our President Donald Trump is allowing people to buy guns that kill people, like assault weapons,” said Nevaeh Garcia, 12. “I feel like ARs aren’t needed in Oregon or in the United States.”
Garcia said the U.S. government should push for changes in gun laws, specifically requiring background checks and prohibiting gun purchases for anyone under 21 years old.
“People are losing their loved ones, so I feel like if our schools know why we’re trying to help stop these school shootings, then maybe they can help too,” Garcia said.
Garcia led her peers around the track while chanting “no more shootings,” while other students remained silent during the 17-minute protest. Teachers and staff recorded cellphone video of their students as they weaved around the track.
For Monique Portillo, she said media organizations like CNN play a role in gun violence by showing school shooters’ faces on live broadcasts, most recently by publishing photos of 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, the man responsible for the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“CNN is giving into what the shooter wants, just for ratings,” Portillo said. “This allows for other individuals to do shootings just for fame.”
Portillo said she wants the government to make school shootings its top priority to stop the “epidemic” of school shootings.
“We cannot allow one more teacher to make the choice to go in front of fire from an assault weapon to save the lives of students,” Portillo said. “Politicians are saying that now is not the time to talk about guns. The time is now.”
After the 17-minute protest, students returned to fourth period.
South Salem High School
Student body president McKenzie Stones and sophomore Justice Presley took time during the walkout at South Salem High School to encourage the estimated 300 students to keep talking about school safety beyond today’s protest.
Stones suggested joining a national “walk up” movement, which calls on students to engage with classmates whom they normally wouldn’t interact and talk about life at school.
Standing on the bleachers near the football field, Stones said each student should try to talk with 14 students and three teachers, matching the number who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“Being kind and actually acting on these lessons is what makes a difference,” Stones said afterward.
Student volunteers also provided blank note cards so their peers could write down what they think needs to be improved at South Salem. Presley said a few took the opportunity to write nasty notes, which were put aside.
There was speculation among students and adults that some who joined the event weren’t interested in the issue — they just wanted to get out of class for 20 minutes.
But during a minute of silence in honor of the victims, hardly a whisper was heard.
Several teens carried signs reading “Fear has no place in schools,” “17 kids > your hunting trip” and “We are victims, we are students, we are change.”
This was the first protest freshman Ben Wiley has attended; he held up a sign reading “Never again.”
“Gun violence is a growing problem in schools and it needs to be dealt with,” Wiley said.
Principal Lara Tiffin said she was impressed with the students’ leadership in planning and executing the walkout. She declined to say whether she agreed with the message of the protest, instead, trying to keep the focus on the students.
“If they want to be a key part of the dialogue,” she said, “then we’re proud of them for expressing their freedom of speech.”
Whiteaker Middle School
With her hands shaking and voice trembling, eighth-grader Alyssa Hodges spoke about her cousin Martin to her peers at Whiteaker Middle School in Keizer.
Martin Duque Anguiano was killed in the Parkland shooting.
“He was one of those kids you would always see volunteering places where it was needed,” Hodges said. “Martin was a smart kid and an amazing cousin.”
After she spoke about her 14-year-old cousin, other students crowded Hodges to give hugs and words of support.
About 300 Whiteaker students participated in its student-led walkout. Hodges was impressed by the number of students who came out to be seen and heard at her school.
“When I saw how many (students) there were, I was very touched,” Hodges said.
Previous coverage: Salem-area students plan to participate in national walkouts
Fellow student Paris Boyd helped organize the middle school’s walkout. Before the event, she read 34 articles and obituaries on the 17 people killed.
“We can give statistics and numbers all the time,” Boyd said, “but I wanted the students to hear who these people really were.”
“Even though we’re middle schoolers, we still have a say in something,” she said. “We should …write letters, go to things, learn about this and then make an impact.”
Others add their voices
Students outside Salem-Keizer Public Schools organized protests as well, from Abiqua Academy, a K-12 independent school in Salem, to college students at Willamette University who marched to the state Capitol.
Gervais High School student leaders discouraged their peers from participating, saying the protests have become too politicized. Instead, they suggested students wear maroon and black to show support for the victims and observe a moment of silence.
National coverage: Students from nearly 3,000 schools walk out to protest gun violence
Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, voiced his support for the walkouts, saying schools should be safe havens that foster learning and understanding.
“Students should be able to focus on their studies,” he said. “Educators should be able to focus on instruction.
“Parents should have the peace of mind that comes with knowing their children are safe.”
In Washington, D.C., Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, met with students gathered at the Capitol.
While many weren’t old enough to vote, he said younger students can still make a difference by handing out voter registration cards, volunteering for candidates they support or by going door-to-door.
“If you can speak up, speak up,” Merkley said. “If you can march, march, and if you can vote, vote.”