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Walking Out and Speaking Up

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It happened again. While working on this issue focused on student responses to school shootings, there was another one. This time in Maryland, leaving the shooter dead and two others injured, based on preliminary reports. And by the time this issue leaves newsstands a week from now, statistics say the United States will have likely recorded another school shooting.

As Malachi Stephens, an 11th grader at McKinleyville High School and one of a couple dozen students who submitted short essays for this week's Journal, says we've all "become numb to all of the violence" and "it's almost expected to be on the news at this point."

But it seems a group of courageous, articulate and outspoken students have somehow snapped through that numbness, wrested control of the news cycle and fundamentally changed the conversation. And the movement is spreading.

Last week, hundreds of teenagers walked out of classrooms across the North Coast, from Triple Junction High School up to McKinleyville, in concert with their peers across the nation, following the lead of those students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who are trying to honor the 17 people killed there by pushing to change gun control laws. And local students are again planning to turn out at noon on March 24 in Arcata to take part in a local March for Our Lives, another event inspired by the Parkland students.

Covering the walkouts last week, we were struck by how passionate and organized the students were, how empowered they felt and how desperately they wanted their voices heard. While the circumstances could hardly be grimmer, it was frankly refreshing to see so many teenagers so engaged. We wanted to hear more from them so we asked them to pen short opinion pieces responding to the Parkland shootings and the national conversation. We weren't quite prepared for what we got back.

Stereotypes would have you believe the demographic sees itself as near immortal; the truth is our local high school students are scared. They use "when" not "if" in talking about the prospect of a local school shooting. They talk of feeling helpless and defenseless in school, a place that should be a bastion of safety. And their proposed solutions are all over the map, from stricter gun laws to arming teachers.

But for the most part, they are less rigid in their approaches. Trent Padilla wants us to stand up for our Second Amendment rights, but he also wants to see mental health assessments for anyone buying a gun, mandatory one-month waiting periods and a prohibition on firearm sales at gun fairs. Klayre Barres and Kyra Dart, meanwhile, talk about their respect for hunting culture in Humboldt County while also calling for a ban on military-style assault rifles.

There's also a cold pragmatism to the students' words. Many concede they have no idea how to stop the epidemic of school shootings in America, fearing that gun bans, mental health services and anti-bullying policies will do little to cure whatever ill in our culture causes someone to pick up guns and try to kill as many people as possible. But they also point to some very tangible changes that could be implemented and make a difference. Many want to see more active shooter trainings in schools and better locks on the doors. They want their campuses closed and fenced off to prevent just anyone from walking onto the grounds. If we can't keep some people from deciding they want to commit mass murder — or keep high-powered rifles out of their hands when they do — students seem to want us to at least plan for the worst.

This conversation seems far from over. As it continues, we owe it to these young men and women to hear them out and to try to see the world through their eyes. After all, it's been almost 20 years since the Columbine massacre horrified the nation. Since then, more than 200 school shootings have followed and nothing has changed. So while it's heartening to see these students stepping forward to demand change and action, it's also shaming. We have failed them.

Sonora Breault-Miller, a ninth grader at McKinleyville High School, wrote that she and her cohort are "here today to fix yesterday and learn for tomorrow."

It's time we listen to them, empower them and let them try.

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