Students in high school classrooms across the North Coast walked out at 10 a.m. on March 14, taking part in a national walkout day organized to bring awareness to gun violence and school shootings.
The 17-minute walkout took place in solidarity with students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with each minute representing one of the 14 students and three adults killed in a mass shooting there Feb. 14. On the North Coast, the demonstrations took different forms in different places.
Before students began walking out the front entrance of Eureka High School, a small group of women had gathered in the school parking lot to wait, including Laura Cangas, who was walking her two dogs but turned out to support the students.
"I'm pro gun control. My dogs are pro gun control," she said. "I'm hopeful for the first time in a long time because of the kids."
As around 100 students began to walk down the school's front steps, the women and some other bystanders applauded. A woman riding past on her bike stopped and began clapping, then wiped tears from her eyes.
Klayre Barres, a freshman, opened the ceremony by calling for five minutes of silence for those who lost their lives, reading aloud the names of the 17 people killed by the Parkland shooter. As those assembled bowed their heads, the group of students around Barres held signs saying things like "School is a place to learn" and "#17ActsofKindness."
"I came up with a list of things we can do as a community," Barres told the crowd, saying that she thought the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, also needed someone to help him. "Spread kindness. If you see somebody and you know something's really wrong, ask them. I think we can be positive trying to bring them up instead of tearing them down."
Barres' speech was met with applause. Standing on the sidewalk with a radio clipped to her belt, school Principal Jennifer Johnson watched the crowd, standing a few yards away from the Eureka Police Department's school resource officer Chris Jenkins. Johnson said school administration had worked with the organizers of the walk out in advance. The drama department had set up a sound system at the top of the stairs. As an educator, Johnson said, school shootings like Parkland worry her.
Taylor Hawthorne, a sophomore, took the mic after Barres. Hawthorne told the assembled students about her foster brother, who lost his life to gun violence in Southern California.
"We as a community, as a people, this is our safe space," she said. "We shouldn't let them take that away from us."
When the 17 minutes were up, the students began filing back to class, but Hawthorne and Barres stayed behind to speak. Hawthorne said her brother would have been proud to see the event and emphasized the toll gun violence has taken on her family.
"People get taken all the time," she said. "I'm tired of pretending to be strong when I'm not."
Down at Fortuna Union High School, senior Brigette Faulk and a few friends organized students to walk out and gather across the street from campus in the parking lot of Bob's Footlongs, where a group of about 15 retired teachers greeted them with applause and stood by in support. Faulk addressed the 150 or so students gathered, reading the names of each of the Parkland victims before pausing in a moment of silence.
Geneva Samuelson said the Parkland mass shooting hit home at Fortuna High, which was rocked in 2016 after administrators uncovered what they believed to be a pair of students planning a mass casualty event (though that was later determined not to be the case).
"Fortuna High has felt fear, so it was really shocking to me when I heard about (Parkland)," she said. "No high school student should ever feel that fear."
While the students gathered, Fortuna Police school resource officer Lindsey Frank stood by. She said she showed up in part to block traffic and make sure students got across the street safely.
"I also want them to know that I support them," she said. "It's very important they understand they're supported and being heard."
In Arcata, students from Arcata High School filled the plaza, holding signs reading "#EnoughIsEnough" and "Gun Control Now!" Meanwhile, students at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy took a different approach.
At the strike of 10 a.m., they began filing out of their classrooms into the front parking lot of their small Arcata campus.
"Everyone, come over here," senior Mattea Denney called out to the growing crowd that quickly gathered around her as she thanked them for joining the walkout.
"It takes courage and it takes strength," she told them. "I'm personally proud to see the immense amount of strength our generation has shown this month."
As small sheets of white paper with a sample script and the numbers of Congressman Jared Huffman, senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein and the White House were passed around, Denney explained the plan to spend the time calling their elected officials.
"We're going to make sure our government representatives know how young people feel at this school," said Denney, one of the school's organizers for the walkout, which was student-led and voluntary.
Biology teacher Alyssa Guerrero stood by, keeping a hands-off watch on the group. She said a group of students approached their teachers about taking part in the walkout and came up with the idea of using the time to call their elected officials and organized all the details, down to writing out sample scripts for the calls.
"We do feel it's important to not penalize our youth for advocating their perspective and what they feel needs to be done for their lives and their world," Guerrero said. "They are the ones who planned this."
With a bucolic open field serving as a backdrop, the students quickly set to action, pulling cell phones from jacket pockets and dialing. While some stood in groups sharing a phone, others went off to the side by themselves, their voices began melding together in an overlapping message about the need for gun control.
"I walked out of my class today because enough is enough."
"I walked out of my class today because I believe I should be safe in my classroom."
"I walked out of my class to protest gun violence."
When a live person answered, the students became more animated. "She thanked me for calling," one girl said after reaching someone at the office of Huffman, who's been an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and advocate for changes in gun laws.
Most of the calls, however, appear to have gone unanswered. While Harris' office had a message machine lined up, Feinstein's office was repeatedly busy, and the White House didn't seem to be letting anyone through.
"White House music. White House music," one student narrated while stuck on hold as he walked around.
After 15 minutes, Denney called her group of fellow students back together. For the last two minutes of the walkout, they stood together in silence to honor the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one month before.
Gathered in a circle, no one spoke. Some bowed their heads. Others looked ahead. No one looked at their phones. When the time was done, they quietly began walking back to class.
In the weeks before and after the walkout, the North Coast Journal reached out to a host of local high school students, asking them to pen short opinion pieces about the Parkland shootings and the national conversation that's followed. Here are excerpts of their responses.
'The Time for Change is Now'
I'm a freshman in high school. When news came out about the Parkland shootings, I was still in school. It was second period and news got around pretty quick. It came up in conversations throughout the day but never really made it past that. When I got home, I was watching the news like usual with my mom, but it was different today. Instead of the usual presidential nonsense, the channel was filled with videos of the shooting that happened earlier that day and grieving parents hurting beyond belief. I watched my mom's heart break more and more as we continued to watch the news about those 17 people she had never met because she knew that any of those kids could have been me. No mother should ever have to worry that when they send their kids to school, that they may never come home. But unfortunately that's the reality of the world we live in. The world I grew up in. But it doesn't have to be the world my children grow up in.
At school the next day I couldn't get it off my mind. In Biology, the teacher was going through some lecture, and I was bored to tears. My mind couldn't help but wander. As I looked around the classroom, a couple things caught my eye. The black button at the back of the class, the one that we would use to call the office if anything went wrong. I noticed the wall at the back of the classroom filled with panel after panel of glass; it was earthquake proof but definitely not bulletproof. And then I saw the kid who sat at the back of the class, the one no one seemed to notice, or pretended not to notice. I couldn't help but tear up a little because, honestly, it's just so disgusting. It's disgusting to think about all of the kids who lost their lives in the Parkland shootings, or any school shootings for that matter. Kids my age who woke up for school one day and never came home. Kids who went to school one day under the reasonable assumption that they would be safe.
There are many things that kids have to worry about, some more than others, whether it be family issues, friend drama or a big test. But one thing that no kid should ever have to worry about is feeling safe at school. So I'm sick and tired of the excuses because there is no good excuse when it comes to the safety of our children. The time for change is now.
– Alexandra Clifford, ninth grade
'The Problem Causing Tragedies'
In the world we live in today, school shootings don't come as a surprise to us. Teenagers were born in a world where school shootings are a yearly thing. We go to school everyday fearing if today will be the day that our school pops up on the news. We live in a world where violence is normal and talking things out is unheard of. As students, we shouldn't have to fear the simple act of going to school and learning. Quite honestly, we fear "when" we will have a school shooting, not "if." Our society is so set on fighting with each other based on their political views that we are missing the real problem of this day and age.
As a teenager, I can hardly stand using social media. All I ever see on social media is people placing blame on other people based purely on their political affiliations. Why do people insist on placing the blame of tragic school shootings on the people that they grew up with? These people that we should be standing next to in this time of a nationwide conflict are the people we are instead pointing fingers at. We are so focused on finding someone to blame for this major problem that we aren't taking action against the real issue.
Instead of saying that it is this generation that is the problem, why don't we look at who created this generation? Teenagers are being raised by adults that don't pay attention to you until you do something wrong. These people that are supposed to love and cherish you are the same people that bully you and make you feel like less of a person. The major mental health epidemic has caused so much hurt that the average person is in a near constant state of mental pain, and that is where our society is failing.
– Elizabeth Wainwright, 11th grade
'If Fear Wins'
We don't need a huge ban on guns as opposed by many, what we need is better policies. I propose that we make it harder to get guns but not take them away. I propose we start with making a better mental health check for anyone who wants to own a gun; a large majority of shootings have been by those who are mentally unstable. Mental health is a very underfunded and ignored problem in our nation and both it and gun violence need to be better addressed. Next, we need to shut down gun trade fairs that allow people to just show up and buy guns at the fair with ammunition. Gun fairs allow criminals or the mentally unstable to get guns without any background check. From there, we should make a mandatory one-month waiting period for guns once the purchase has been made before you can receive it. This would make it an extra step of security so that if any new-found evidence of the person was brought up it could be revoked.
Now let's look at the fact that these aren't the policies our country is pushing forward; our country wants an outright ban on guns. As stated above, I disagree with this route and don't believe that we should lose our Second Amendment rights. Gun violence needs to be approached with a manner like the steps that I have laid out. We can't go to an all out ban over fear because if fear wins we're all sheep to it.
– Trent Padilla, 11th grade
'Are You Kidding?'
About twice a year we practice for an active shooter and that just means that we turn off the lights, shut and lock the door, and pull the blinds shut and keep quiet and pray the shooter will just pass by. It absolutely angers me that that is all we can do when an active shooter is on campus. We live in a world today where every kid has a computer in his pocket and we have had men walk on the moon, but our safety drills for schools only include locking the doors. Are you kidding me? In my eyes, I feel like schools should arm the majority of the staff and/or have armed security on campus along with lockable fences around the school.
– Cian Ferguson, 11th grade
'Numb to the Violence'
It honestly doesn't surprise me anymore that attacks happen because of what people go through on a daily basis, and some people just can't deal with it until they turn to violence.
The worst part of all this is how our generation has become numb to all of the violence and shootings because we grew up with it. It's almost expected to be on the news at this point and that is even more terrifying than the shootings themselves.
– Malachi Stephens, 11th grade
'I Feel Unsafe'
I feel unsafe when I am present in school. The idea of someone coming on campus and hurting me is very apparent and every day I just wonder if it will be today or tomorrow. I know that is an awful way to think but with the way things have been going, I don't think I am too far from the truth. I could think of a number of students who would gladly bring violence to the schools and that makes me scared. I say this because it is jokingly expressed in the schools daily. More people are becoming bolder when it comes to hate speech and being aggressive, especially when it comes toward their own opinions and views.
– Tsewiniche Van Pelt, 11th grade
'The New Reality'
Whenever I see a quiet, troubled loner at school I no longer look at them as a depressed and harmless teenager, but as a potential school shooter. I find myself keeping a distance and a close eye on them at all times. I also consider possible escape routes and safe areas where I could hide if I needed to. I am much more aware of my surroundings and how I could use physical barriers to protect myself and my friends. I run through possible scenarios in my mind in order to prepare myself for the worst. I never thought I'd have to think this way at school but that is the new reality. Sometimes I can't believe that it is real. I think that all schools should practice active shooter drills on a regular basis in order to be prepared for the possibility of an attack. I used to think of school as a safe place but the sense of security is dwindling with each new shooting.
– Theodore Wade, 11th grade
'Tired of Being Tired'
I am tired of going to school and being afraid of being murdered. I do not want to be left defenseless to a maniac with a gun. I am tired of not having some sort of defense from a man with a weapon. I am tired of not being able to fully focus on my studies because of the fear of death. I am tired of being tired. I am tired of liberals using school shootings to stir up fears against school shootings to disarm the working class while not realizing the bigger problem of our oppressive school system and alienation from society. I am tired of conservatives who blame and vilify mentally ill people who are used as scapegoats while the real problem is their surroundings and their inability to access free mental health care.
... I have heard the question, "Why do you need an assault rifle?" over and over again, and the answer is quite simple. I don't. It is not a need, it is a right, just like you don't need freedom of religion or speech, just like you don't need freedom from slavery, just like you don't need a fair and speedy trial. All of these things are rights.
– Will Clark, 11th grade
Even if we can't find a middle ground for the gun laws, we should come up with a plan for every school no matter the size. All across the United States, students took 17 minutes out of their days to mourn the 17 precious lives lost in a deadly mass murder, but that wasn't the only reason behind the walkout. Depending on which student you ask, they will give you a different reason for walking out. For some students, is was an opportunity to voice their opinion on installing better security measures and for others they didn't like their Second Amendment being messed with. All in all, the underlying reasons are the same. We're scared. It's scary to think that your school could get shot up as easily as the other schools were. Students shouldn't come to school scared for their lives. They should be focusing more on the beautiful lines in Romeo and Juliet, not whether or not today will be a safe day to come to school.
– Danika Gritts, 11th grade
Because these events have been so prominent, not only with the public, but especially with high school students, it has shown the immense capability of America's youth. While there has not yet been direct federal legislation passed in acknowledgment of the students' voices, the response from the rest of the country has been deafening. This is because those who support this topic have felt comfortable enough to vocalize their support, just like the students at my high school did during our walkout. These movements have given people, especially young people, the assurance that they can be heard — if not by Congress, then by the rest of the nation.
– Amelia Parker, 12th grade
Incidents of bullying can occur in a student's own household, from fellow classmates, in their social environment and, unfortunately, even from their institutional superiors. The effects of bullying and abuse at a young age damages their identity and mental health. In middle school, I was a victim of bullying. Not only did bullying affect my physical drive, it overwhelmed me mentally. If it wasn't for my supportive, guiding family and my loving, caring friends, I may not be as mentally stable as I am today. I was fortunate to become stronger from the incidents of bullying inflicted from my abuser. However, other teenagers may not have the resources and ability to recover from such trauma. As the abuse destroys their self worth they will seek to protect themselves and possibly get revenge. When we think of a "school shooter," we can't just blame the gun or the kid. We have to blame society, biology, psychology and environment in which the student has been exposed. In all reality, a "school shooter" is not only the attacker but the victim of a long standing attack. Until society starts accepting the root of the cause of "school shootings" they will continue to point fingers and argue about gun control. All the while, children continue to be victimized by bullying and because nobody is protecting them, they are being groomed to become our next school shooter.
– Kyra Watkins, 10th grade
While we didn't grow up in households with gun culture, we support Second Amendment rights. However, the idea that we could get guns easier than we could get our driver's licenses is absurd. With an understanding of the hunting culture in Humboldt County, we would like to make it very clear that we aren't suggesting take away all guns from everyone. We are simply suggesting that universal background checks and controls need to be placed on people before they can buy a gun. We also suggest restrictions on military-style assault weapons. If the shooter at the school in Florida would have had a shotgun instead of an assault rifle, he may have caused harm, but much less. These powerful guns make it easier for people to kill more efficiently, faster and with overall more devastation and this must not be allowed to continue in our country.
– Klayre Barres and Kyra Dart, ninth grade
The solution to gun violence isn't to ban guns, but rather give training to people willing to go through a concealed carry course or help them to get proper education on gun safety. Over 95 percent of mass shootings are committed in gun-free zones. These areas are targets because there is little retaliation against the shooter and by the time the police arrive on scene the damage has already been done. To prevent more shootings at schools, the banning of guns is not the proper way to go about it. Instead, teachers who already have concealed carry licenses should be allowed to carry on campus. Also, teachers who want to be trained in firearm safety and get a concealed carry license should be able to get funding from the school. If people knew the teachers were armed and trained, they would be less likely to enter with a gun or other weapon because they would know that they would get stopped quickly. Even if the shooter still decided to shoot, the teachers would be able to stop them before mass damage could be done.
– Ian Trump, 11th grade
'They Tell Us'
Teachers tell us if they die there is a black button right next to the door that immediately contacts the office if we need it. They tell us which key hanging from the lanyard around their neck will lock the door. Our teachers tell us that they will protect us the best they can in every situation. They'd rather be killed than have a student being in the line of fire. They tell us to stay as calm as we can even if your best friend was just shot right in front of you. If your teacher is dead that means the shooter has found a way to enter the room. If your teacher is dead, you probably are, too.
– Kendra Turner, 11th grade
'What if it was Different?'
As a new student to McKinleyville High, I was first drawn to the acceptance from the students. I was welcomed with open arms and this reflects the community as well. My new home has, without a doubt, become one I will never forget. Although this past year has been filled with joy, there have always been those "what ifs" stuck in the back of my mind and I think of them every morning. What if I leave for school and don't return home? What if I watch my classmate get shot and killed right next to me? What if my teacher risks his or her life to save the 30 of us hiding behind desks, books and anything that could potentially save us? No student or teacher should be worried about an active shooting happening on their campus. We should feel safe and protected at a place we spend seven-plus hours, five days a week.
In my hometown, I was faced with a true lockdown and in the moment I didn't know what to think. One of my fellow students brought a gun to school, but as it was happening, no one knew exactly what was going on. I'm never going to forget the siren that blasted through campus early in the morning warning us that it was not a drill. I remember sprinting to my teacher's back room, shoving and pushing between my friends through a small doorway. Twenty-eight of us were crowded in a small room sitting there in silence, some teary eyed. We texted friends in other classes to see if they knew anything, but everyone said something different. I didn't text any of my family members because I was too scared to face the reality. I kept telling myself it was going to be OK and nothing was going to happen, even when I didn't know the full truth. A little over two hours later, our principal informed everyone that it was safe to leave, no one was hurt, and the kid was arrested. Thankfully, nothing happened to anyone, but that isn't the case for the majority of schools that have a student who brings a gun to the campus. No one should have to go through this experience in school, no one should have to think about where they're going to hide when they hear those sirens. School should be a safe place for anyone who attends, not a place where we have to decide if we're going to crowd together and pray the shooter doesn't come into our room, or be the hero who confronts them hoping to save everyone else while risking their lives.
We come to class every day stressed about the homework we didn't get done the night before, the test we have second period or the sports game that could decide our future. We should only be faced with problems like those in our schools but instead we have the constant fear of "what if." We as students are the ones who have to suffer with these thoughts, we are the ones who know how it feels and it's time for us to stop worrying about what might happen, but what if we didn't have to worry? What if our schools were a place we didn't have to be scared in? We are the future, and enough is enough.
– Traci Millager, 11th grade